Erin Edge, Rockies and Plains Associate
In the spring of 2009, two grizzly bears named Rainy and Scarhip were seen frolicking through fields and across highways. Soon thereafter, both bears were captured near Seeley Lake, Montana and fitted with tracking collars. To have any chance of survival, Rainy and Scarhip would have to avoid a variety of temptations, including garbage cans, birdfeeders, and chicken coops – all containing delicious snacks for a hungry bear.
Needless to say, the outlook was not good, and Scarhip was getting into people’s yards almost immediately. But food attractants aren’t the only threat to grizzly bears, and in October of 2009, Scarhip was mistakenly shot and killed by a black hear hunter. Meanwhile, Rainy stayed out of trouble all summer long before heading to her den north of Lake Alva. The following spring she emerged with two cubs and spent the next few months in the Placid Lake area. Then, suddenly, on July 14th, she was documented near Seeley Lake again, feeding on garbage, grain, bird seed and dog food. Females with cubs need as many calories as they can find, and Rainy had hit the jackpot.
That was the beginning of the end for Rainy. Before long, she and her cubs were climbing onto porches, damaging buildings and approaching people. Due to escalating concerns for human safety, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks decided to trap all three bears. But it was too late — one of Rainy’s cubs was hit by a car crossing Highway 83. A month later, FWP trapped Rainy and her remaining cub and sent them to a zoo in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Sadly, the cub died a year later from a rare fungal infection, while Rainy still remains at the zoo.
The saddest part of the story, however, is that the loss of these bears was almost entirely avoidable. Simple solutions like electric fencing are highly effective at securing attractants like bee yards, apple orchards, lambing pastures, chicken coops and compost piles. Other successful deterrents include bear-resistant garbage enclosures and using livestock guard dogs, range riders and alternative grazing methods.
Some of these tools can be expensive, but there are resources available to help residents protect their property and prevent conflict. For example, Defenders of Wildlife started a program in 2010 to help pay for smaller fencing projects. So far the program has secured 58 sites in Montana and helped save grizzly bears.
Take the Morris family, for instance. They’re a 4-H family from northwest Montana with pigs, goats, sheep and chickens. Last year, the Morrises routinely had grizzly bears on their property and had Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks on “speed dial.” They wanted to install a sturdy electric fence but didn’t think they could afford one. FWP directed the Morrises to our incentive program, which helped pay for installing the fence they wanted — a win-win solution for both bears and people. The Morrises finished their electric fence last October and are expecting local wildlife residents to be quite “shocked” when they come around this spring.
Since 1997, Defenders of Wildlife has also been compensating ranchers for livestock losses to grizzly bears. This year, Montana will take this program over through the state’s Livestock Loss Board. Though not a perfect solution, compensation programs help mitigate the financial impact on ranchers and their families. But compensation only addresses conflicts after the damage has already been done. It’s far better to find ways to prevent conflicts from occurring in the first place. And on the rare occasions when these tools aren’t enough, wildlife managers need the flexibility to relocate or remove grizzly bears that are deemed a serious threat to humans.
Aldo Leopold, the grandfather of wildlife conservation, once wrote, “Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.”
By the late 1800s, this became a real fear. An estimated population of 50,000 grizzly bears plummeted to just a few hundred in less than one percent of their historic range. Fortunately, grizzly bears were protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1975 and have been making a strong comeback ever since. Today, there are approximately 1,700 grizzly bears in the lower 48. Most of us have welcomed these magnificent creatures back to our landscape. But it will take concerted efforts by all of us living in grizzly country to ensure continued recovery of the species. Ultimately, the fate of grizzly bears in Montana and across the West still rests in our hands.
I hope grizzlies are never relegated to Alaska nor happiness to heaven. And hopefully, by working together, we can ensure that our children and grandchildren can continue to find both right here in Montana.
To learn more about what you can do to coexist with grizzly bears, visit defenders.org/GotGrizzlies.
Originally published by Montana Public Radio