HomeScienceGrizzlies Are Increasing in Numbers. Learning to Live With Them.

Grizzlies Are Increasing in Numbers. Learning to Live With Them.

Aries, an Anatolian shepherd, vigilantly observes a stranger approaching a pen where he resides with other members of his family. Within the pen, along with Aries, are eight adorable 2-month-old puppies, a grunting pig, and several bleating goats. These livestock guard dogs, like Aries, are highly sought after in Montana due to the increasing number of grizzly bears in the state. Originally from Turkey and bred by shepherds, Anatolians are known for their immense loyalty and extreme protectiveness towards those they care for, even against top predators.

Natalie Thurman, the owner of Apex Anatolians, sells these dogs for $3,300 each primarily to people who raise livestock, but she also sells them to families with children. These dogs accompany families on hikes and camping trips, serving as protectors and warning systems against potential bear encounters. Thurman understands the danger that grizzly bears pose in Montana as she explains, “We have gray wolves, grizzly and black bears here. We just had a grizzly bear in the creek a hundred yards from here.”

Grizzly bears are a constant concern for residents in the northern Rockies. They no longer restrict themselves to remote high country areas, national parks, and wilderness. Instead, they have encroached upon valleys and prairies, reclaiming parts of their previous territory. They wander onto golf courses, invade homes, target chicken coops, and raid cornfields. Montana, with a population of 2,100 grizzlies, has the highest number in the lower 48 states, while Idaho and Wyoming have smaller populations.

Bear attacks frequently make headlines in this region. A recent tragic incident involved the death of a jogger near Yellowstone National Park. The bear responsible, along with its cub, was captured and euthanized after raiding a cabin and stealing dog food. Another fatal attack occurred when a man was searching for elk antlers near Yellowstone. These incidents, along with the growing number of bear encounters, have led to a surge in the sales of bear spray, a form of protection containing capsaicin.

As fall approaches, the possibility of conflicts between humans and bears increases. Bears enter a state called hyperphagia, during which they overeat to build up fat reserves for hibernation. While black bears usually retreat when confronted, grizzlies tend to stand their ground, making them a more formidable threat. The grizzly bear has been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1975. However, their population has been steadily increasing, leading biologists and conservationists to focus on creating a bear-friendly environment to ensure their survival.

Unfortunately, the land bears once inhabited is now fragmented by roads and occupied by humans who are settling in. Urban development, subdivisions, towns, cities, and livestock are spread across their territory. Increased recreational activities on public lands expose a large number of people to bear encounters. Therefore, managing human activities in a way that allows bears and people to coexist with minimal conflicts becomes crucial.

The future of the bears is at stake, and conflicts with livestock and people undermine support for their conservation. Some individuals advocate for removing the bear’s protected status, allowing ranchers to shoot them when their livestock are in danger. Others call for bear hunting. To address these issues, the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Wildlife Services is researching nonlethal methods of bear management, such as sound devices, ear tags, and thermal imaging drones that discourage bear attacks on livestock.

Bear and human conflicts are not unique to this region. Similar incidents occur in various parts of the world where humans and bears are encroaching upon each other’s territory. Preventative strategies, like the Bear Smart program originating in British Columbia, have been adopted in western Montana. This program focuses on deterring bears from food sources like garbage, compost, and fruit gardens.

Russell Talmo, a specialist in conflict prevention, helps landowners in multiple states install electric fences around their chicken coops, beehives, and garbage facilities. He emphasizes the importance of securing food sources to prevent bears from becoming accustomed to finding easy meals. Fruit growers are also urged to quickly pick their apples to reduce bear activity, with a program in place to donate the harvested apples to local food banks.

Christopher Servheen, a biologist formerly with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, emphasizes the importance of bears learning to avoid people. Bears have a culture, passing behavior patterns from one generation to the next. By addressing the black bear problem, communities can be better prepared for the grizzlies that will inevitably approach cities like Missoula.

Overall, Montana is taking active steps to manage and mitigate conflicts between bears and humans. By implementing preventive measures, educating the public, and researching nonlethal methods, the aim is to ensure the coexistence of humans and bears in this region for generations to come.