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.

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