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More People, More Griz Does Not Have To Mean More Conflict
September 12, 2021
More People, More Griz Does Not Have To Mean More Conflict
As Jessianne Castle reports in this story from wild country around Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, it's how humans behave that can keep people and bears safe
by Jessianne Castle
Ashea Mills remembers trudging on, one foot after another, clambering up the trail in silence. She was accompanied by a friend and was summitting Barronette Peak in Yellowstone National Park during a Fourth of July backpacking trip. She says they had fallen into a rhythm of silence. “By not talking, we were breaking the number one rule in griz country, kind of just stalking along.”
Mills says she glanced up the trail and immediately stopped. A huge grizzly, made all the bigger because he was standing on the trail above them, was a mere 30 yards away. He stood on his hind legs, observing the backpackers, then suddenly slammed down on his front legs and began clacking his teeth.
“That’s the scariest grizzly encounter I’ve had,” Mills says. A guide in Yellowstone National Park, Mills has been frequenting the backcountry in and around Yellowstone for nearly 30 years. She says during that experience, she and her friend grouped together, began to speak with an air of calm confidence, and slowly backed down the trail. Nothing more came of the encounter, but for Mills, it was enough to reiterate the importance of always being aware. She and her hiking partner were above tree line, on a trail that follows the peak’s razorback to the summit; Mills suspects the grizzly had been foraging for army cutworm moths in the rocks.
“You have to pay attention and be careful,” she says, adding that anyone in bear country needs to remember to make noise and familiarize themselves with bear behavior. “Bears have their places they like to be, so knowing their different food sources at different parts of the year is really important, as is recognizing aggressive versus curious behavior.”
Human conduct in bear habitat is something that starts as an intentional choice before it becomes habit. “It’s like taking your shoes off at the door so you aren’t tracking mud across the carpet,” she says. “The habit doesn’t feel burdensome because of the reward, in this case, being able to coexist with these animals.”
Like all habits, bear awareness is something that’s learned and consciously acted out many times over before it becomes natural. It’s something many communities and recreationists have been doing for decades. But with what is, in some cases, an unprecedented surge in tourism and recreational use following the outbreak of Covid-19, there’s value for visitors and locals alike in reflecting upon our own human behavior and how it affects wildlife.
A Storied Past
On a cloudy day in November 2019, Yellowstone National Park bear biologist Kerry Gunther stood at the front of a room in Bozeman, Montana. He was among a panel of bear biologists and wildlife managers, speaking before a citizen panel tasked with making recommendations for how the state of Montana could improve relations with people and grizzly bears. Gunther described the park’s storied past and its long history of human-bear conflict.
Early in park history, garbage was disposed of in pits, and Gunther described how it became tradition for tourists to gawk and gander at bears that gathered around the waste. “It became so popular that the Park Service formalized the activity with bleachers and feeding stations,” he says. “A couple thousand people a night could watch.”
Today, the number of grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park is at modern highs. Within Yellowstone, the number of bear-caused property damages since 2010 averages less than a dozen a year while bear attacks average less than one human injury per year.
By the early 1890s, bears were becoming aggressive, breaking into lodge kitchens and camps in search of human food. Gunther says it became a nightly occurrence for bears to raid the campgrounds. Between 1931—when conflict record keeping began—and 1969, there were an average of 138 instances of bear-caused property damage each year, as well as an annual average of 48 bear-related human injuries.
Gradually, managers realized the main cause of these conflicts was the aggressive behavior that comes when a bear is habituated to human foods. Over the course of 12 years, wildlife managers closed down garbage dumps throughout the Greater Yellowstone. They also cracked down on hand-feeding bears and began using bear-resistant garbage cans. The goal, in the face of high conflict and following the listing of the grizzly as a threatened species on the Endangered Species List, was to maintain viable populations of grizzly bears and return them to subsistence on native foods.
Messaging on a picnic table in Glacier National Park informs visitors that food and odors can attract bears. Photo courtesy NPS
Today, the number of grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park is at modern highs. Within Yellowstone, the number of bear-caused property damages since 2010 averages less than a dozen a year while bear attacks average less than one human injury per year. Notably, Gunther says bear behavior has changed. Historic conflict arose as a result of aggressive bears trying to get human foods, but since the 1980s, human injuries are most commonly the result of surprise encounters in the backcountry.
During the first half of 2021, Yellowstone hosted nearly 1.6 million visitors, up from 719,000 in 2020 and 1.35 million in 2019. Simultaneously with increased recreation, the Greater Yellowstone made national headlines following several negative bear encounters.
In light of these conflicts, the National Park Service hosted a bear safety session that was posted online in June . During this video (watch it by clicking here), Gunther described the role visitors play in keeping bears safe. “Many people think bears are unpredictable, but actually bears are fairly predictable,” he says. “Unfortunately, it’s usually the people that are misbehaving.”
Mills rolled through the gates of Yellowstone in 1995 following a three-day trip on a Greyhound bus. She’d made a quick decision to seek a change of pace and Yellowstone would become the backdrop for her own personal journey. Mills has worked in the park ever since. She lives with her husband and nine-year-old daughter in Gardiner, Montana, near Yellowstone’s North entrance, where she operates her guiding company, Walking Shadow Ecology Tours of Yellowstone. Most days, Mills is out on the trail, either educating visitors on the many wonders of the Greater Yellowstone, or on an adventure with her family.
“It is such a privilege to live, hike, recreate, and raise a child in an area that has the capacity to hold a grizzly population,” she says, adding that conservation measures that help grizzly bears often promote thriving ecosystems and allow for the conservation of many other species as well.
“It’s a space where you always have to be aware of the fact that you’re in bear country,” she says. “I don’t like to worry. Cultural fear is not what they need from us. They need our awareness and they need us to know about their behavior.”
Mills learned about bear safety as a necessary part of her backcountry experience. She began carrying bear spray in the early 2000s when it became popular on the market and she quickly adopted food storage practices along with her leave-no-trace ethics. She calls herself a backcountry purist, saying that nothing goes in her tent except herself, her bear spray and a water bottle that’s only ever seen water. Everything else gets hung at least 10 feet high in a tree and the sleep tent is at least 100 yards away. When her daughter was a toddler, Mills would draw a circle in the dirt and tell her toddler that’s where every single attractant—food, the clothes they cooked in, trash, toiletries—had to stay.
According to Gunther, who is tasked with mitigating conflict between Yellowstone’s bears and its visitors, anyone spending time in bear country should be familiar with bear safety measures. He says it’s important to give bruins space; in Yellowstone visitors are asked to keep a minimum of 100 yards away from bears and never surround or follow them. He also says to refrain from running, which can trigger a chase response in bears, much like in some dogs.
“The prudent thing to do is heed warnings when a bear tells you you’re too close. Any time a bear slaps the ground, pops its jaws, juts its lips out, those are all warnings that you’re too close,” he says, adding that in those scenarios you should slowly back away. In the event you are charged, Gunther says to stand your ground and use your bear spray, remembering that if it happens quickly, you can deploy the bear spray while it’s still holstered on your hip. Simply unclip the safety and depress the trigger with your thumb when the bear is within 10 to 20 yards. “If you can use hair spray, you can use bear spray,” he says.
Sharing The Experience
Some five miles from Yellowstone’s western boundary, Kameron Kelsey is carrying on a modern version of the pioneering spirit of the West. His approach is humble, his presence kind. Kelsey operates the Nine Quarter Circle Guest Ranch with his wife, Sally, in a high-alpine drainage of the Madison Mountain Range. Here, he shares his lifelong home with visitors and resident wildlife alike.
“I love to see bears,” he says. “I like to watch their behavior and see what they’re doing.”
The Kelsey family has run the Nine Quarter Circle for 75 years, with Kameron Kelsey taking the reins as the third generation of Kelsey ownership in 2019. The Kelseys live on the ranch year-round, where they raise horses in addition to hosting summer guests. The property is tucked within the Taylor Fork drainage on the southern end of Gallatin Canyon near Big Sky, Montana. In this pocket of sage, Douglas fir and scattered aspen, which rolls right up to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, grizzly bears have long been able to carve out an existence.
The ranch predominantly caters to families, who typically stay for a week at a time and enjoy activities like horseback riding and fly fishing. “We have families come from all over the country, or even internationally, and often they come hoping to see bears,” Kelsey says. “We’ve been pretty fortunate living where we do and having as many bears as we have. They are by and large good bears and a big part of that is keeping a clean camp and a clean ranch.”
“The prudent thing to do is heed warnings when a bear tells you you’re too close. Any time a bear slaps the ground, pops its jaws, juts its lips out, those are all warnings that you’re too close." —Yellowstone senior bear specialist Kerry Gunther
On the ranch premises, waste is sorted from recycling and is stored in an underground bunker until enough has accumulated to haul for disposal. Staff also keeps horse feed inside the barn in locked bear boxes that have a latch that bears are unable to open. Kelsey and his staff work to educate guests about what it means to be bear aware and why food conditioning is a problem, and they also offer bear spray on loan. “There are some steps that are necessary and needed to live and work around bears, but I don’t find them burdensome or annoying,” he says. “I think it’s just part of living in the landscape.”
Kelsey says the majority of ranch guests want to see a bear and learn about their behavior, but some are clearly afraid. He reminds them that if you’re smart and pay attention to your surroundings, you can mostly avoid negative scenarios and have a positive experience. For Kelsey, a positive experience with a grizzly bear is a hallmark of connecting with nature, something that’s increasingly valuable for an increasingly populated and urbanized society.
“Watching these people experience not only nature, but some of the finest predators and animals out there, is such a reward,” Kelsey says. “A lot of people can see whitetail deer or coyotes in many parts of the country. There’s a pretty finite amount of land left where animals like grizzly bears live. Knowing a guest can go out and see a bear far outweighs any negatives or the steps we have to take to live with them.”
On the opposite end of Montana, up in the northern reaches of the state, outfitters Maggie Carr and Yve Bardwell have spent an exceptionally hot summer covered in horse sweat. Their respite is the high-basin grasslands of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, which extends from Glacier National Park south along the Rocky Mountains toward Helena. The Bob, much like the Lee Metcalf near Yellowstone, is important habitat for a core population of grizzly bears that has remained intact and is now thriving. The bruins have spread out from Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall into the nearby mountains and, in recent years, some have turned east, moving from the Rocky Mountain Front back onto the prairie.
“It’s good to know that they’re there, it’s a symbol of things we’re doing right,” Bardwell says. She and Carr co-own Dropstone Outfitting in Choteau and offer stock-supported backpacking and hunting trips in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The multi-day ventures are predominantly roving trips, with guests hiking with their daypacks while Bardwell and Carr lead a short string of mules and horses that carry the bulk of the group’s supplies.
Bardwell says it’s not uncommon to see black bears or grizzlies, though she notes that traveling with stock tends to keep the bears away. The outfitters utilize bear-resistant food storage containers, some of which can be hung in a tree, and they also set up an electric fence around the part of camp that contains food. “These things are the adopted practice,” she says. “It’s something you grow used to and it becomes business as usual.”
During the hunting season, whether the women are guiding clients or out on their own, they remain vigilant. The well-known wind along the Rocky Mountain Front can limit the ability to hear, which means hunters must be especially cautious about bears. During the fall, black bears and grizzlies seek out additional food sources in preparation for hibernation. This period of eating is known as hyperphagia and as bears seek to consume more and more food, they can become more bold or potentially aggressive.
Carr says during hunting season, her awareness is on high alert. In addition to keeping a clean camp and securing attractants, she says she prefers to retrieve game carcasses with multiple people so that several sets of eyes can be on the lookout for bears.
“Back in the mountains, we’ve been trained to be bear aware so it helps mitigate some of the conflict,” she says. Carr grew up in Choteau and has witnessed grizzly bears recolonizing their historic range along the Front as well as out on the plains. In many cases, this has brought grizzlies closer to small towns like Choteau. There are some parts of the year when Carr’s mother, who lives a few short miles from town, sees a grizzly bear almost every day.
“We definitely see bears in the Bob, but I would say more of the conflict is happening out on the Front,” Carr says. “As bears move out into spaces where people are actually living and existing, some areas have adapted to living with bears, but others haven’t. In some cases, people are just going about their daily life, not being bear aware, because you expect to see bears in the mountains but not around towns.”
Bardwell admits it can be a difficult shift to adopt bear awareness practices at home. She says there are spaces in and around town where bears occasionally come through and it’s important to remember that. For example, she avoids the areas with chokecherry patches in August and tries to remember to carry her bear spray even if she’s just taking her dogs for a short walk.
“I think it’s an awesome privilege that I get to live in a place that is also home for bears. I love to see them,” she says. “It’s about forming new habits. We just need to continue to learn how to share the landscape with them.”
Certainly, safety is a paramount concern in spaces and places occupied by bears. And as increasing numbers of recreationists head out into wild spaces, while simultaneously bears expand into their historic territory, it’s important that we humans are aware of our behavior in order to keep people and bears safe. Bear-safe habits begin as intentional choices and can make a significant difference for the well-being of all.
NOTE: To learn more about best practices for recreating in bear country, visit fwp.mt.gov/conservation/species/bear/bear-aware or nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/bearsafety.htm.