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Did You Hear About The Griz That Wandered Down Bear Canyon?

Well, not only did it cause a commotion in Bozeman, it's forcing reflection on how human pressure is squeezing the life out of wildlife habitat


Unthinkable half a century ago, grizzlies are wandering along the wildland-exurban interface only a few miles outside Bozeman, Montana. Whether they'll be able to maintain their place on the landscape close-by will come down to human behavior as Bozeman/Gallatin County's population and development footprint grow like never before. Painting by John Potter, a fine contemporary wildlife artist who lives in Greater Yellowstone.  See more of his work at  johnpotterstudio.com
Unthinkable half a century ago, grizzlies are wandering along the wildland-exurban interface only a few miles outside Bozeman, Montana. Whether they'll be able to maintain their place on the landscape close-by will come down to human behavior as Bozeman/Gallatin County's population and development footprint grow like never before. Painting by John Potter, a fine contemporary wildlife artist who lives in Greater Yellowstone. See more of his work at johnpotterstudio.com

By Todd Wilkinson

The confirmed sighting this week of a grizzly in the lower reaches of Bear Canyon just southeast of Bozeman is yet another reminder of how close the big bruins are now living near people—in this case within the exurban outskirts of the fastest-growing micropolitan city in America. 

Not only is that considered extraordinary for Westerners entering the third decade of this new millennium, but such a happening was believed unthinkable 45 years ago when the Greater Yellowstone population of grizzlies was given federal protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Bow hunter Dash Rodman took this photo of a  bear paw print after he saw the bruin wander near his perch in a tree.
Bow hunter Dash Rodman took this photo of a bear paw print after he saw the bruin wander near his perch in a tree.
For decades, the only grizzlies that came close to busy four-lane Interstate 90 connecting Bozeman with Livingston over Bozeman Pass were captive bears residing at a roadside zoo. But in mid-October, bow hunter Dash Rodman was sitting in a tree when he saw what he believed to be a grizzly strolling beath his perch high above the ground along the riparian corridor of Bear Creek.  Later, Bear Canyon resident Renee Thill posted a short video of the bruin by Rodman and a photo of a paw print in the snow, both shot a few hundred yards from LaMotte School.

Called to investigate, Kevin Frey, a longtime bear management specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, paid a visit to Bear Canyon Sunday Oct. 18, finding a strand of ursid hair on a fence but no tracks in the mud. Still, upon reviewing Rodman’s film, he told Mountain Journal:  “Yes, definitely a grizzly; it looked to be a subadult. The thing is that if the archery hunter hadn’t been there when the bear passed through, the world probably would never have known the bear had come down the creek corridor and then probably went back up into the mountains.”

While not surprising to Frey, the sighting created a sensation of speculation on social media. Bear Canyon is a drainage with a road that dead ends and along the way are homes and two busy trailheads leading across state lands and the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Indeed this place-name lives up to its moniker. Visitors often have seen black bears getting into residents’ garbage, fruit trees, pet food and pulling down bird feeders. There also are mountain lions that prowl the drainage and wolves on the public lands.

Video below: Griz or black bear? (Note: Video and photo (above) both courtesy Dash Rodman. For those who don't know him, Rodman is co-owner of MAP Brewery)

Frey says that people not securing food and garbage has led to perennial problems with bruins. For denizens of Jackson Hole reading this, a rough analogy to Bear Canyon would be Cache Creek wending into the Gros Ventre mountains east of the town of Jackson.

Seeing a grizzly only a few miles, as the crow flies, from Bozeman’s Main Street is a big deal even for old-timers. But Frey says grizzlies, in fact, have been wandering the northern front face of the Gallatin Range where it meets the Gallatin Valley for a few years and most people are unaware. The bruin in Bear Canyon was likely a subadult male, known in any grizzly population as the dispersers and colonizers of new terrain. 

Most bruin navigations have largely happened without incident because the grizzlies have done a good job of avoiding people, Frey says, though he is concerned that close and potentially dangerous encounters could occur as more outdoor recreationists pour into the Gallatins, venturing off established trails and increasing the likelihood of bumping into a bear.

“As far as bears go, I call it a waltz,” Frey said.  "They are dancing in a forest full of obstacles and people sometimes behaving like chickens with their heads cut off. The bears are doing their best to avoid us. They are not seeking trouble,” Frey says, noting that it’s human behavior that will determine if bears have a future there.

Based in the Gallatin Valley as well as having growing up a rancher’s son from eastern Montana near the Musselshell River, Frey as a bear management specialist has spent decades dealing with human-bear conflicts. He says the changes are head-spinning. He is amazed, he says, at how growth in the human population of Bozeman/Gallatin Valley is quickly affecting (negatively) how wildlife are using landscapes and how they might—or might not—move through them in the future.  

Frey says there’s no doubt in his mind that the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population is healthy and has met criteria that determines whether it is biologically recovered. He believes the population can be delisted. From a population that dipped to around 130 grizzlies or fewer in this entire massive ecosystem, equal in size to New England, and with bears mostly clustered 50 years ago only in Yellowstone Park, the regional population today is more than 700. Recovery has happened only because humans changed their lethal behavior and made habitat protection a priority. 

While indeed bears are showing up in places where they haven’t been in a century or more they’re paradoxically facing shrinking and more fragmented habitat from more development and rises in recreation users, he said.

Bear Canyon represents kind of a microcosm for pondering the challenges of human-wildlife co-existence in Greater Yellowstone, he notes, and thinking about what wildness is. Lots of weedy, highly-adaptable species, such as white-tailed deer, coyotes and maybe half-tamed elk and moose can navigate the wildland-urban interface, but having grizzlies is a test of human smarts and responsibility. 
Bear Canyon represents kind of a microcosm for pondering the challenges of human-wildlife co-existence in Greater Yellowstone, Frey notes, and thinking about what wildness is.
Given the inundation of covid refugees and transplants that is occurring in Bozeman, as expressed in a recent Washington Post story, it’s clear that many in the drove, drawn to what they perceive to be paradise, have little wherewithal when it comes to co-existing with a rare caliber of wildness far beyond anything they had previously known. 

Irrational fear about bears and other carnivores like mountain lions is what historically led to a lack of human tolerance for those species and eventually left them rubbed out of the landscape. Can they learn to be “bear wise?” Will even local Bozemanians realize the miracle that it is to have grizzlies present in the city’s public lands backyard? Time will tell, Frey says.

“Folks who have a hard time living with black bears in a place like Bear Canyon and failing to secure potential food attractants are not going to make it happen with a grizzly,” he notes. He believes the confirmed sighting should be a wake-up call to build more awareness of what is expected of people to live responsibly in terrain frequented by wildlife.

“This is an issue along the whole front of the Gallatins from Livingston to Bozeman and over to Gallatin Gateway,” Frey says. “Grizzlies were wandering the northern Gallatins this past summer and autumn in lower elevations. The places where creeks enter the Gallatin and Paradise valleys offers really good habitat. Some bears will follow the wild berry patches down creek drainages and if there are other unsecured human and pet foods close by and accessible, they’ll find them.” Some will also be drawn by the whiff of big game gut piles left behind by hunters who field dressed their animals.

Bears have humans coming at them from two directions—on both public and private lands, he adds.  

“We have a lot more recreationists who don’t have a clue what they’re moving through. Folks need to wake up and realize this isn’t Central Park. When we step out of our car we can easily run into a moose, a mountain lion or a grizzly but so many people are naïve and nonchallent,” he said. “And, on top of it, we’ve got this fascination with being extreme. Everybody is extreme something or another. Trails were crowded enough but now we’ve got people like mountain bikers cruising off trail, bushwhacking on their bikes and they’re filming it with GoPros and putting it on Facebook to prove it. All of this kind of activity is increasing the likelihood of an encounter.”

This past summer, Frey was called to investigate the mauling of a Big Sky resident who was on an established trail with his bicycle and walked around a tree right into a grizzly. Neither the human nor the bear were doing anything wrong and it happened in Big Sky's equivalent of the suburbs.

Renee Metcalf Thill, the woman who circulated Rodman’s video on Facebook, is a fifth-generation Montana whose family has been involved with raising cattle in Bear Canyon going back to 1870. “I’m not surprised the country to the south of us is wild. There are no major fences or roads between here and Yellowstone Park.”

Thill, who operates a plumbing business with her husband, is less concerned about occasional  bears than how recreation trails in Bear Canyon are often crowded with motorized riders and mountain bikers on top of hikers and horseback riders. 
“Everybody who’s moving here is coming to experience the outdoors. I understand why people want to live here. I’m not a person who wants to lock people out but we’ve noticed some dramatic changes in wildlife behavior, especially elk. Some groups say they want to add another trail in Bear Canyon and disperse more people across more land. But what the animals really need are more quiet places. They’re getting pushed around by the presence of all the people.” —Bear Canyon resident Renee Metcalf Thill
“Everybody who’s moving here is coming to experience the outdoors. I understand why people want to live here,” she says. “I’m not a person who wants to lock people out but we’ve noticed some dramatic changes in wildlife behavior, especially elk. Some groups say they want to add another trail in Bear Canyon and disperse more people across more land. But what the animals really need are more quiet places. They’re getting pushed around by the presence of all the people.”

The Gallatin Valley Land Trust is currently considering acquiring a small private parcel in Bear Canyon.  According to GVLT’s executive director Chet Work, the organization “believes that the property might serve as a place to balance conservation and recreation," he told Mountain Journal.  GVLT was approached by the landowner who wanted to see the land conserved and open to the public.  While too small of a property to attract GVLT by itself, this parcel lies adjacent to state lands and GVLT is interested in exploring the potential of managed access catering to the natural resources and wildlife needs.  While the organization still has work to do to understand the resources on the property, Work suggested that “existing unmanaged recreation in Bear Canyon and all along the Gallatin Front threatens to eliminate valuable habitat and a new model is needed.”  GVLT hopes to work over the next few years with neighbors, agencies and other stakeholder groups to envision what Work calls "a sustainable future for wildlife and recreation in the area" and decide what, if any, new public access points, might be considered

Disclosure: Mountain Journal is a fan of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust with the work it has done over the years to protect farm land, open space, stream corridors and build recreation trails within Bozeman's urban footprint. 

Some scientists say overuse is already a problem as the Bear Canyon drainage is an important corridor for wildlife movement between the mountains and fringes of Gallatin Valley, and it has come under unprecedented recreation pressure. Rogue trails used by motorized interests and mountain bikers abound, some that cut right through the riparian area considered the richest part of a landscape for wildlife. User conflicts also are chronic.

During the summer, Mountain Journal had an interview with Custer-Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson about the rapid rise in “user-created” trails throughout Greater Yellowstone that some scientists say are sometimes routed through important wildlife habitat and resulted in fragmented safe spaces for a range of species.
Erickson said something that many readers might find shocking. While motorized recreationists—motorcyclists and ATV users—are forbidden from traveling cross country on national forests because of resource impacts, mountain bikers are not. Outside of wilderness and only a few other places, they can ride almost anywhere they want. 
Erickson said something that many readers might find shocking. While motorized recreationists—motorcyclists and ATV users—are forbidden from traveling cross country on national forests because of resource impacts, mountain bikers are not. Outside of wilderness and only a few other places, they can ride almost anywhere they want.  

Mountain Journal asked Erickson about numerous reports it has received from citizens who say mountain bikers were out widening existing hiking trails with chainsaws and hand tools, and that new trails were also being blazed, some of them on wildlife game trails. Mountain Journal will soon feature a story based on what Erickson and colleagues had to say about this contentious issue.

Frey, however, said it is unwise for wheeled recreationists to be zooming down game trails because in addition to increasing the chances of an encounter, human activity displaces animals from places where they want to be. Animals create trails through certain parts of the landscape for a reason usually having to do with finding habitat security there or natural foods. If animals have created a game trail,  Frey explained, it is usually located away from people, but if people take over the game trail as a recreation pathway, it disrupts wildlife further still, driving animals out of preferred habitat.

Wildlife biologist Brent Brock, who is leading the Wildlife Conservation Society’s analysis of large landscape conservation opportunities and challenges in the Northern Rockies, concurs with Frey.

Reams of mounting scientific evidence, he says, speak to how human population pressure squeezes wildlife out of habitat in ways outdoor recreationists don’t often consider.  Elk can be seen as a surrogate of sorts for other species.

A scientific analysis that has received wide circulation is a peer-reviewed study published in 2018 in the journal Forest Ecology and Management and titled “Elk Responses to Trail-Based Recreation on Public Forests.”  It was conducted in Oregon using elk that were fitted with radio collars and then examined what elk did when humans used public hiking trails. GVLT’s Work suggested that this was one of the studies they were looking at closely to help them understand the compatability of recreation in Bear Canyon.

Half of all the elk being monitored with radio collars moved as far away from recreation trails as possible when human there was human activity. “Elk avoidance of recreation trails was strongest during ATV riding,” the authors wrote. “Elk avoidance of trails during mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding was statistically similar but the distribution of elk locations during these three types of recreation indicated that elk shifted farther from trails during mountain biking.”

Notably, elk demonstrated “special intolerance” from both human activity and from the presence of  trails themselves. In the case of ATVs, higher travel speeds made elk more wary. Equally revealing is that trail-based recreation, in general, had the same impact of causing elk to flee as the impact of Forest Service roads where motorized use is allowed. 

The video below by Austin Stonnell captures an elk herd migrating through the suburbs of Bozeman, having to dodge subdivisions which are overtaking former ag lands, as well as fences, roads and other human obstacles. How long will it be before elk can no longer migrate through the southern half of the Gallatin Valley south of I-90 and east of Highway 191?

This is important because, as the analysis explains, there have been more than 30 studies conducted over the last five decades showing “consistently and overwhelmingly” that elk will move sizeable distances to stay away from roads to try to find habitat security. So, if recreation trails are having similar impacts of wildlife displacement as roads, and if, as studies show, with more roads and human activity more disruption, what are the implications not only of existing trails but of the Forest Service allowing “user-created” trails to proliferate?
“Habitat compression in response to human activities is a form of habitat loss for species like elk, considering the potentially large areas not used or used less in the presence of humans...Habitat compression can ultimately lead to large-scale population shifts by elk from public forests to private lands, thus eliminating hunting and viewing opportunities on public lands.” —From a study examining the impacts of recreation on elk
The authors draw a conclusion. Previously available habitat that existed before lots of humans began using an area leads to habitat compression. “Habitat compression in response to human activities is a form of habitat loss for species like elk, considering the potentially large areas not used or used less in the presence of humans, and that otherwise might be elected by a species in the absence of humans," they wrote. "Habitat compression can ultimately lead to large-scale population shifts by elk from public forests to private lands, thus eliminating hunting and viewing opportunities on public lands.”

Relatedly, elk only moved back to habitat areas where trails were located when human activity stopped.  

The paper delivers a firm message to the Forest Service and conservation organizations pushing for more public access and more trail building on public lands. “Although public forests are governed by laws and policies of multiple use, not all areas can be simultaneously co-managed for recreation and recreation-sensitive wildlife.”

The Forest Service acknowledges that it does not know what the impacts of recreation on wildlife already have been or what rising pressure will mean in the future.

Below are two videos for readers to ponder. Wildlife researchers say speed and intensity of human outdoor recreation contributes to wildlife displacement. They also note that riding fast and quietly, focussed only the narrow trail to avoid hitting trees, is a recipe for disaster in grizzly country. Is this kind of activity, particularly if done in important wildlife habitat and by large numbers of riders over a given year, consistent with the goals of wildlife conservation?

The first video below shows a mountain biker gaining speed as he descends Mt. Blackmore in the Gallatins and accelerates through the forest. The second one is of a mountain biker descending the popular Sypes Canyon trail in the Bridgers. Both are located inside the Custer-Gallatin National Forest and they are indicative of the kind of riding that occurs on trails in Bear Canyon, too.


Regarding the findings of the Oregon study, similar elk behavior has been documented in Greater Yellowstone. A special report released by the Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) titled “Elk in Paradise" examined how to save wildlife migrations in Paradise Valley and noted that incentives can go a long way in helping ranchers stay on the land and protect habitat.  
Report author Whitney Tilt delivered this insight. He noted that rising human pressure in the Gallatins on the national forest—use of public lands by outdoor recreationists—had altered elk behavior, resulting in wapiti being displaced from, or fleeing human-busy public lands and congregating instead on private ranches in the valley. 

Frey and Brock echoed the same finding. Frey gives credit to wildlife that for the most part is trying only to avoid people. “Poor animals. They are better at adjusting than you or I are because they don’t have a choice. They have to make it through today,” he said. “ We are causing the impacts with other species. There are a lot of factors. The intensity of use, more people, and, in some cases more people with dogs and making noises that are causing animals to seek out quieter places.” 

On the topic of "intensity of use," Brock says it's not only one trail user that triggers a flight response in an animal near the trail. "It's the effect of one more, and then another and another, over and over again. The animal, especially if it's, say, a cow elk with a calf or a bear sow with cubs, it will eventually abandon the area." And then, if more trails or roads are added and there are mountain bikers riding cross country on top of it, the impacts can be substantial, he said.

Brock believes that recreationists are simply unaware of their impacts: “People are moving here because of the wildlife and [desire to be] in the outdoors but they are pretty clueless about what it takes to behave responsibly if you want the wildlife to persist,” he says. “If we want to hold onto what we have, we’ll either to have create and safeguard quiet places where a lot of human activity is not, or we’re going to have to improve, by an order of magnitude from where we are now, increasing the ecological literacy of people living on the landscape and using it.”

An issue of keen interest for Brock is biological connectivity specifically identifying the places where wildlife need and want to move through the landscape, both seasonally and how they might need to disperse as climate change negatively impacts what they eat and where it’s found. 

While discussing the young grizzly that wandered down Bear Creek, encountered human development and then turned around, he noted that had the bruin continued north it would have bumped into something else that represents a formidable barrier—I-90. In the next stories, we’ll explore the phenomenon of "user-created trails" and what wildlife connectivity means within the context of the northern Gallatin and Absaroka mountains and other ranges immediately to the north on the other side of I-90, including the Bridgers, Bangtails and Crazies.
Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen.  For more on Wilkinson's career, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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