If we give them space, future looks good for grizzlies

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A grizzly bear peers over a hummock of Krummholz in Glacier National Park. Photo was taken with a 600 mm equivalent lens.

While tragic, Glacier Park’s Night of the Grizzlies did much to change grizzly bear and human backcountry use.

“It was a lightning rod to the core of the Park Service,” said Glacier Park biologist John Waller.

While the Wilderness Act had been passed three years before that tragic night in 1967, there was no Leave No Trace ethic — leaving or burying garbage was common in bear country. Even Roy Ducat and July Helgeson buried the remains of their sandwiches before they camped for the night, a Hungry Horse News story noted.

Philosophy toward bear management changed quickly after the incident. Grizzlies were not nearly as common in Glacier in the late 1960s as they are today. They also weren’t protected, Waller said. The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 and grizzlies were listed as threatened in 1975.

“That takes away management authority of the Park Service,” Waller noted.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would now oversee bear management, which changed how “problem” bears were managed. Instead of simply being killed, they were often trapped and moved to different locations.

Bear managers also began using hazing and aversive conditioning — using cracker shells and rubber bullets, for example, to keep bears away from campsites and roadsides. Trained dogs have also proven an effective means of deterrent.

More importantly, Glacier also changed the way it managed people. Garbage dumps were cleaned up, designated backcountry camps were established, and pack-it-in, pack-it-out for garbage was mandatory.

The Park also patrolled for grizzlies and posted warning signs for trails if bears were frequenting them. If bear presence persists, Glacier closes both trails and campgrounds. Today it is not unusual for a trail to close for several days — sometimes even weeks — because of grizzly and black bear use.

But not all bear management methods work. As the grizzly bear population has grown, moving bears isn’t all that effective anymore. There are few “remote” places to move bears to, Waller noted. Bears usually just return in a few weeks or days anyway.

What relocation does do, however, is give bear managers a chance to fix a problem, be it a backyard bird feeder that needs cleaning up, or a garbage can that needs to be secured.

“Sometimes (that extra time) is all you need,” Waller said.

Hopefully by the time the bear returns, the problem is cleared up and ideally, the bear is eating a more natural food source.

Another tool that is helping people and bears is bear spray. Bear spray came on the scene in the mid 1980s, but didn’t gain popularity until the 1990s. Studies have shown that it’s more than 98 percent effective.

Today, most hikers carry it and more than a few each year end up spraying a bear at close range. Bears are intelligent creatures and while it’s hard to quantify, one has to think that they’ve learned over time the unpleasantness of human encounters and bear spray. Fully unloaded, a typical can of bear spray is highly unpleasant.

Even with more and more people coming to the Park, the bear injury rate has been dropping and the last mauling death inside the Park’s boundaries was in 1998, though people have been bitten by bears since then, about one or two a year. Two people were bitten by grizzlies last year.

“Statistically, you’re more likely to be hit by a falling vending machine,” Waller noted.

The grizzly bear population has expanded greatly since listing in 1975.

Today, Glacier alone has about 300 grizzly bears. It was estimated that the entire Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem only had about 150 bears total when they were first listed. The NCDE covers an 8 million acre swath of land from Glacier south to Ovando along the continental divide.

Today, the NCDE has about 1,000 grizzlies, with more and more moving out into the plains along the Rocky Mountain Front each year.

Environmental changes over time could also play a role in longterm bear health. Fire regimes in the Park are an important factor. Fires kill berry bushes, which take several years to grow back, but they also create more grasslands, which are beneficial to elk, another high-quality bear food, Waller noted.

But bears are very good at exploiting the environment.

“The reality is bears are smart and highly adaptable,” Waller said.

Human tolerance for bears has increased over the years as well.

Most people are willing to live with the bruins and take precautions to make sure that bears and people are safe.

He recalled a neighbor in the Flathead Valley who recently had a chicken coop ransacked by a bear. The neighbor took it in stride. Thirty years ago it would have been “get your gun.”

Recovery of grizzlies is a national success story, Waller maintains.

“It saddens me that people can’t embrace that,” he said.

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