Happy Bear Awareness Week, everyone! To kick things off this year, I thought I’d share a story about what inspired me to get involved with fighting to protect grizzly bears in Montana.
My first bear encounter
In the late ‘90s, I was working in Yellowstone National Park as a waitress, a city girl inexperienced about wilderness. Wildlife, in my mind, consisted only of the opossums, deer, raccoons and squirrels that had frequented my neighborhood in Missouri. Little did I know, my summer job would forever change my conception of wildlife – and my entire life.
One sunny day I set out on a hike with friends into Hayden Valley. The grass was as tall as me, gold and thick, and bison grazed in every direction. Suddenly, we noticed a grizzly bear off in the distance. My instinct was to run in the opposite direction, and I actually did briefly until a friend asked where I was going. Sheepishly, I stopped. We took out our binoculars and the grizzly stood up, her coat gleaming in the afternoon sun. Then, the small brown head of bear cub popped out of the grass. Finally, a third grizzly bear emerged, slightly larger than the little cub. Three grizzlies! At once, all three bears dropped into the tall grass and disappeared.
Media headlines were racing though my head: “Female grizzly attacks hikers to defend her cubs!” I was horrified and certain that she was going to pop up right in front of us—a mad, mama bear—but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Soon, she reappeared farther off, near a wet, muddy hole. She lay down on her back watching the other two roll in the mud.
In that exact moment I was forever changed. All the information I had received about bears through movies, TV and news articles was inaccurate and sensational. This was beyond a doubt, what we humans like to call a “family moment.” The cubs were playing while mom soaked up some sunshine. I knew I had to better educate myself about bears and that I needed to share what I learned.
Helping people and grizzlies coexist
This moment comes to mind every spring when bears emerge from hibernation and we start gearing up for our summer field season. For the past 10 years, I’ve been working to promote tolerance and find ways for humans and grizzlies to coexist. My job is to make sure that people are doing their part to secure attractants so that bears can keep themselves out of trouble and continue to thrive on the landscape.
My colleague Russ Talmo and I got started early this year by participating in several workshops and outreach events. This included talking about raising chickens in bear country at two Montana Pastured Poultry Workshops hosted by the National Center for Appropriate Technology in cooperation with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. We also set up remote cameras at a lambing pasture on the Rocky Mountain Front and, while we didn’t catch any bears, we do have footage of a coyote, a skunk, raccoons and lots of sheep.
Right now grizzlies are out of their dens looking for food such as glacier lilies, spring grasses and deer and elk that have died over the winter. But anthropogenic attractants like garbage, birdfeeders, livestock, bees and chickens can quickly lure a winter-starved grizzly. To help keep bears away from these potential food sources, Defenders started an Electric Fencing Incentive program three years ago that reimburses residents 50% of the cost of an electric fence around a bear attractant. Between 2010 and 2012 we completed 58 fences. This year our goal is to complete another 50 fencing projects, and we are well on our way with over 25 people signed up already to participate. Additionally, we are working with livestock producers on larger electric fence projects, range rider programs and helping to purchase livestock guard dogs.
I’ll keep you posted as our field season gets under way. We have lots of coexistence projects to complete and lots of great stories to share from our partners, so stay tuned!