Grizzly bear, © John Eastcott and Yva Momotiuk/National Geographic Stock

Good Neighbors in Bear Country

Erin Edge, Rockies and Plains Associate

Grizzly family (Photo Credit: Stephen Oachs)

Grizzly family (Credit: Stephen Oachs)

Working on grizzly bear conflict issues for over 10 years has shown me a few things: First, grizzly bears are smart, and their sense of smell is phenomenal. If there is an available food resource around, they will find it.  Second, grizzly bears evoke emotion in humans. Almost everyone I talk to has some connection to just the idea of grizzly bears, and respecting all perspectives is part of finding real solutions to conflict. And finally, grizzly bears can recover, but only if we give them tolerance and safe access to wild, protected spaces. We must become responsible stewards of the lands we share. As Defenders’ Rockies and Plains Associate and point person on grizzly bear conservation, I draw on these three very simple ideas as I approach each day on the job, on the ground, working to keep the peace between humans and grizzlies.  One of the reasons I love my job is that I get to see real-world solutions stop grizzly bear mortalities from occurring.  This year was challenging, but rewarding.

electric fencing for grizzlies

An electric fence around a beehive can prevent a lot of trouble for grizzlies and humans alike.

The Northern Continental Divide grizzly bear population in Northwest Montana is on the road to recovery, and as the range expands, we face a rise in conflicts between people and grizzlies.  This is particularly true in areas where former bear habitat is now occupied by people and livestock. Chicken coops, fruit trees and garbage are powerful attractants for bears.  If a bear finds goodies at one location too often, they learn to expect food near human homes and property, often getting into trouble in the process, and potentially leading to the death of that bear.  The bear may also teach its young to access things like birdfeeders, garbage and chickens. Consequently, generations of bears could be at risk if attractants are left available.

Securing even one location can stop a grizzly bear from learning those behaviors and teaching other bears. To address this problem, we started an electric fence incentive program in 2010. Electric fencing is a highly effective tool for keeping bears out of trouble.  Our program reimburses people half of the cost (up to $500) of an electric fence installed around the trees, chicken coops, or other features on their property that might attract grizzly bears.  It’s been great to see the interest in this solution grow each year. In 2010 we completed six fences, then 12 fences in 2011, and then we completed a whopping 40 fences in 2012!  The people who participate in the program are also happy – they find a way to protect their homes, livestock or other property without threatening the bears:

Now I rest easy knowing that my trees and bears are safe. Thank you for your help. – Matt Dipaulo, 2012

We are a 4H family with pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, rabbits and horses, and young children. We had spoken often about an electric fence, however, couldn’t afford putting in a good solid one. I know Defenders of Wildlife sure helped us! – The Morris Family, 2012

Defenders also spearheads a variety of other coexistence projects to prevent conflicts between livestock and grizzlies. We assist ranchers with the costs of range riders, cost-share for livestock protection dogs and provide incentives to ranchers who voluntarily retire sheep grazing allotments that have a history of chronic livestock loss to grizzly bears. In fact, since we started this effort in 1997, Defenders has invested over $500,000 in more than 250 grizzly bear coexistence projects.

Additionally, Defenders’ Grizzly Bear Compensation Trust reimburses ranchers for the marketable cost of verified livestock losses to grizzly bears. In 2012 alone, Defenders of Wildlife paid over $89,000 to livestock producers through this program. Since 1997, Defenders has reimbursed ranchers over $370,000 for lost livestock. Working closely with ranchers minimizes grizzly bear deaths related to livestock depredations and improves tolerance. In a human dominated landscape, tolerance for grizzlies is critical to give them room to move, raise their cubs and reoccupy historic ranges. Grizzlies once roamed the Great Plains to the California coast, from Canada to Mexico. Today, populations still occupy less than 2% of their historic range.  The road to recovery is long and bumpy, but we are dedicated to working on the ground in order to ensure this iconic symbol of the American wilderness is recovered.

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