Talking with kids about grizzlies

A volunteer educator reflects on teaching kids about conservation, and learning from them.

  • A student looks into the mouth of a grizzly display at a Montana WILD education program.

    Courtesy Montana WILD

“Afterbirth; what about afterbirth?” The earnest 7-year-old pressed his question –– a very smart one. I’d just given my spiel on grizzly bears to students in a Montana school so rural and remote that all the classes put together, kindergarten through eighth grade, consisted of just 15 kids.

I’d warned them that grizzlies are omnivores that will eat things that we humans don’t recognize as food, so that stuff like garbage or deep-fryer grease attracts bears to ranches, farms, resorts and towns. I also reminded them that bears have acute senses of smell, often gravitating toward items that seem — to us — thoroughly rank and nasty.  

The second-grader reflected on what he’d seen at his home ranch and connected the dots, so, yes, I told him, a cow’s afterbirth left on rangeland after calving might well attract a hungry grizzly. That was a good moment for this new teacher.

I’m a volunteer for Montana WILD, an education center outside Helena run by Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. Before retiring, I worked for a long time in Oregon as a wildlife lawyer and had a short stint teaching wildlife law. My focus these days: Talking to young Montanans about learning to get along with grizzlies. 

At times, Montana WILD sends me out to classrooms, not just in elementary, middle and high schools, but also to colleges, alternative schools and even psychiatric hospitals. But most often, the kids come to me. They come from all over Montana to our facility above Spring Meadow Lake, sometimes travelling as many as 400 miles one way. Montana is a big, big-box state.

We get boot-wearing kids from ranches and farms. Patagonia-clad kids from the college towns of Missoula and Bozeman. Kids in camo shirts and caps, Native American kids from the reservation, sunburnt kids from the Bakken oil patch. We even get kids from Hutterite colonies, the girls in long skirts, aprons and kerchiefs, and the boys in dark jackets and black hats.    

“I’m really glad you’re here,” I tell them. “Because the story of the griz is a success story, a Montana story that you’re already a part of.” The kids’ eyes widen as I point out that the grizzly, originally both a mountain and a prairie animal, was once found not only in the Rockies but also as far East as the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas. I describe how humans wiped out the big bears in the Great Plains and vastly reduced their numbers in the mountains, leaving just a few remaining populations, mostly right here in Montana.

I show them how, thanks to the Endangered Species Act and the hard work of many people, two populations of grizzlies have made particular strides toward recovery. I zero in on the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population, centered in Montana’s huge “crown of the continent” region, extending from Glacier National Park through the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex. I describe how, with the population now around 1,000, grizzlies from the Northern Continental Divide are beginning to move out of the mountains and recolonize areas where they haven’t been seen in more than a century.  

“In recent years, for the first time since the 1800s,” I tell the kids, “we had grizzlies denning for the winter on the prairie.” 

At this point I pause, and scan the room for reactions. During my career in the grownup world, I attended many legislative proceedings and public hearings where adults either demanded removal of large carnivores from the landscape or insisted that they be confined to public lands.  

But now, as I enter my third season of talking with Montana kids about bears, my experience is completely different. I get no pushback from my student audiences when I describe how grizzlies are expanding their range into ranchland, farmland and resort areas.  Instead, the students anticipate the next portion of my presentation about how to coexist with griz, and begin peppering me with tough, practical, solution-oriented questions, comments and suggestions.   

Thus we end up discussing such things as the effectiveness of electric fencing, what makes for a griz-proof cooler, the composting of carcasses that attract nosy grizzlies. These discussions offer some hope, especially now, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers whether to take grizzlies of the Northern Continental Divide population off the threatened species list. 

When it comes to the hard work of understanding conservation through coexistence, the kids of Montana are all right.

This story was originally titled "The grizzlies and us" in the print edition.

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