Grizzly Bear Ecology in MT and How to Prevent Conflict
MISSOULA – MTN News recently told you about the history of grizzly bears. Now, we take a look at the current grizzly bear ecology in Montana – and offer some bear safety tips.
Montana is home to this enormous mammal – reaching heights of up to eight feet tall and weighing up to 800 pounds, the grizzly bear is one of the largest omnivores in North America.
Grizzly bears have large populations in Glacier National Park and the Great Yellowstone Ecosystem, but their range also spans Idaho, Washington state, and Wyoming.
During the 1880s, there were around 50,000 grizzly bears in the lower 48 states, but over time 95% of grizzly bear populations were lost from the United States range.
The early declines were largely the result of persecution by European settlers; grizzly bears have been shot, poisoned and trapped wherever they are found.
For example, there were less than 200 grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park in the 1970s.
The Endangered Species Act came into effect in 1973, and grizzly bears were listed as one of the first endangered species in 1975.
The following decades would provide stringent conservation measures, and Montana agencies joined with key federal land and wildlife officials to protect areas of habitat.
In the six bear recovery areas, only four areas have correct estimates in the Grizzly Bear Recovery Annual Report 2020.
He says there are 727 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, an estimate of 800 in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, 54 in the Yak, and 53 in the Selkirk. In 2021, there were a few confirmed cases of grizzly bears in the Bitterroot.
The animals expand their range as they grow, meaning that an increase in sightings and potential encounters may be likely as Montana’s population increases as well. Grizzly bears are opportunistic and adaptable omnivores, and more than half of their diet is vegetarian. While grizzly bears primarily like to eat what is in the wild, they will also eat human waste if they have access to it.
Some bear foods are under threat due to warming and climate change, and food scarcity is known to increase rates of human-bear conflict. The number of grizzly bear deaths has increased in recent years, and grizzly bears are often killed if they pose a threat to people or livestock.
They are out there and many, but they are just wild animals that have inhabited this place for thousands of years. If you’re in the woods, here are some dos and don’ts of practicing bear safety – and the methods are different depending on the bear species.
Tips from the National Park Service when in the backcountry:
- Make sure you always have bear spray with you and know how to use it
- Hike in a large group and stay on the trails
- Identify yourself by speaking in a calm manner so the bear knows you are there, you can yell “hey bear” or a bell can alert wildlife to your presence as well.
- When camping in bear country, hang your food in a tree 100 feet from your campsite
- Keep a clean camp with no traces of food
- Avoid carcasses
- Don’t hike at dawn, dusk, or night when grizzly bears are most active
- Don’t leave food or garbage unattended
- if you carry a bag, don’t drop it, keep it on your back
- Make sure you don’t run away. It can invoke the instinct of a predator to flee from prey
- Never camp in an area where bear activity is evident
- Do not feed bears or any wild animals
You can also learn to “be bear aware” from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks here.
Preventing a conflict is easier than resolving one:
- Bear spray is a very effective, non-lethal deterrent. Carry an EPA approved bear spray and know how to use it.
- Never feed wild animals, especially bears. Bears that become conditioned on food lose their natural foraging behavior and pose a threat to human security. And it’s illegal to feed bears in Montana.
- Know your bears. It is important to know the difference between grizzly bears and black bears whether you are hunting or hiking.
- Always keep a safe distance from wildlife. Never intentionally approach a bear.
- A properly constructed electrified fence is both safe for people, livestock and pets, and has been shown to be effective in deterring bears from human resources such as beehives, garbage or small livestock
Finally, be sure to report encounters if a bear has exhibited aggressive or defensive behavior towards people, livestock or pets, or damaged property.