Influx of grizzly bears compels Montanans to adapt

From electric fences to special garbage cans, rural communities find new tools to help them coexist with bears.

 

Condon, Montana residents learn about managing bears in their community at a Bear Fair hosted by Swan Valley Connections.
Andrea DiNino/Swan Valley Connections

The Rolling Stone Ranch lies behind a cluster of deciduous trees on the open, undulating plains of Montana’s Blackfoot Valley. Its green barns sit just outside the tiny town of Ovando, which is home to around 80 residents. As a crisp autumn breeze swept by in early October, Jim Stone, the ranch’s owner, greeted me in front of his house with a firm handshake. From his kitchen, he gazed out the window overlooking the valley and gestured across Highway 200. “My neighbor has 13 grizzly bears on his property,” a 21,000-acre spread, he told me. Just two decades ago, that many bears would have been rare.

To protect their livestock from the booming bear population, many local cattle ranchers have installed electric fences. They require less maintenance than barbed wire does and are safer for migrating elk, Stone explained. Since improving his fencing, he no longer has to worry about grizzlies killing his cows and calves. 

As grizzlies continue to expand their range in Montana, more communities will have to face the question of how to coexist with them. Strategies like installing electric fences, distributing special garbage cans and encouraging communities to share the lessons they learn can help. But the most effective tool may be one of the hardest to achieve: trust between rural landowners and government agencies.

Back in the early 1800s, there were more than 50,000 grizzlies in the Lower 48. But by 1975, after years of hunting and habitat destruction, the population had dwindled to less than 1,000, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. With federal protections in place, grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide in northwestern Montana have flourished. Currently, there are approximately 1,000 bears in the area, the largest population in the U.S. outside Alaska. As a result of this rebound, the federal government had considered delisting the population, though that process is now paused in light of last year’s court decision to restore federal protections for grizzlies in and around Yellowstone.

But the grizzly boom has brought with it a rise in human-bear conflicts. This September, for example, four hunters were injured in three separate attacks in southwestern Montana. These encounters are bad news for the grizzlies as well: Last year, about 50 bears were killed or removed from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, a record high for Montana.

Conflicts with grizzlies in the Blackfoot Valley have dropped by 74% from 2003 to 2013.

Nonprofits like the Blackfoot Challenge, located in the Blackfoot Valley, are helping communities deal with these conflicts. Stone, who chairs the organization’s board of directors, has helped implement its three-pronged approach to managing grizzlies: building electric fences, moving dead livestock to designated compost plots and employing range riders to protect cattle. All told, conflicts with grizzlies in the Blackfoot Valley have dropped by 74% from 2003 to 2013, according to a 2017 case study on the Blackfoot Challenge.

But in the small town of Condon in nearby Swan Valley, where tall conifers rather than rangelands dominate the landscape, the residents face different problems. One of the biggest challenges is teaching people how to manage backyard bear attractants, like garbage cans and chicken coops, said Luke Lamar, the conservation director at the nonprofit Swan Valley Connections. The organization offers electric fencing installation, bear-resistant garbage containers, property consultations and educational events. Once a bear knows where to find free food, it tends to return to the area, Lamar said. “That cycle will most likely continue until the bear is caught and removed by agency bear managers, or by other means — such as a resident shooting the bear.”

Communities have different reactions to grizzlies and may need different methods to manage them. Sara Halm, a graduate student at Idaho State University, is interviewing people who live in three Montana communities to learn how grizzlies impact their rural towns. Many locals are scared for their children, who can no longer play outside alone the way their parents once did. For some, electric fences help lessen that fear. But fences make other residents feel confined. “This is deeper than just an economic issue of protecting people’s livelihoods,” Halm said. People have to redefine their relationship with the environment and wildlife.

And with or without electric fences, grizzly populations will likely continue to grow. Stone thinks the next big step for the Blackfoot Challenge involves preparing communities for grizzlies before they arrive. This includes teaching residents about electric fencing, carcass removal and range riding. But, more importantly, it means talking about collaboration between landowners and federal and state agencies. “One of the best things we’ve ever done to solve our problems is build trust and credibility between agencies and landowners through civil meetings,” said Randy Gazda, the vice-chair of the organization’s board of directors. “If you don’t have trust, you can have all the tools in the world, but it’s probably not going to work.”   

Helen Santoro is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...