Living in bear country
An in-depth look at what Madison County can do to avoid bear encounters
Bears are out and about this summer!
Morgan Jacobsen, Information and Education Program Manager for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Region 3, thoroughly explained the five universal messages that aim to prevent bear encounters. He began by introducing the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, which includes the park and forest services, FWP, tribes, sportsman, and wildlife representatives. The IGBC complied these safety guidelines for use by all groups mentioned above to educate people on how to live in spaces with bears.
1. Bears can be anywhere (assume their presence).
The Greater Yellowstone Area grizzly population has improved and reached recovery levels. Jacobsen showcases this by providing numbers. In 1980 there were reportedly less than 200 grizzly bears in this area and that number has increased to 718 in 2018. All of these numbers go to show there are more grizzlies in the GYA than before and chances of meeting one are higher.
2. Preventing a conflict is easier than resolving a conflict.
Most importantly, this can be achieved by group travel. Danielle Oyler, Education Coordinator for the Montana Bear Education Working Group, provides a statistic from YNP explaining how 91% of people were hurt by a bear traveling in groups of one or two. Only 9% were hurt that traveled in groups of three or more. Oyler points out these larger groups are just louder and more intimidating by default.
“If bears know people are coming, most of the time they will step off and wait. They don’t want to be disturbed and they don’t want a negative encounter,” she said. Neither do all the day hikers and adventure seekers in town. It’s like when you went to outdoor camps as a kiddo and the counselors made you sing call-and-response songs while marching through the woods. It seemed like just a way to keep everyone entertained, but it also served a greater purpose by letting any bears in the surrounding area know people were near.
3. Keep food and other attractants away from bears.
Jacobsen emphasized the extraordinary memory bears have. If they find a garbage can full of food waste in early spring, they will store away the exact location and season of that food source in their brains. If this find was particularly easy to get at, one can imagine that location is stored even more concretely.
“One of your goals if you’re an animal living in the wild is to do things the easy way,” Jacobsen stated, describing a cooler full of food as an easy meal. “Once they’re habituated to it it’s extremely difficult to break that habit. Even when we relocate bears they have an uncanny way of finding their way back to those areas.”
“Bears are really dependent on their extraordinary sense of smell. For you and me, it’s kind of like eye site. It’s hard to imagine life without it.” With this in mind, storing any food waste or products in a vehicle or other bear storage container is crucial, especially in Madison county since it encompasses bear country.
4. Be prepared to handle bear encounters.
This point sums up the prior three in a literal way. Madison county is no stranger to bear encounters and knowing how to interact with one you may have accidentally encountered is vital, for you and the bear. From the FWP’s Grizzly Bear/Human Safety Information, Education and Outreach plan, Jacobsen goes through four different ways to handle a bear encounter.
The first is simple. If you are unnoticed, move away quietly. Secondly, if you are seen by the bear, stand firmly and wait until the bear loses interest. Thirdly, once the bear appears to be agitated, the more detailed steps take shape. Stand your ground, prepare yourself to use bear spray and speak calmly to the bear. Lastly, when and if the bear does charge, lay face down and cover your head and neck with your hands. Bear spray can still be used after assuming this position.
Jacobsen mentioned an example of a 17 year old boy near Ennis who was able to ward off a charging bear with his bear spray while taking the ground position. “We always tell people to aim low because if they try to aim to the bear’s head, sometimes the bear will run under the cloud of bear spray,” Jacobsen adds, which is another reminder of a bear’s intelligence.
Olyer provides another statistic encouraging the use of bear spray. A 2008 study in Alaska showed 98% of people were not harmed by a bear after using bear spray and 92% of the time after use the bear changed its behavior.
“It creates a negative association with humans and it kind of reinforces the fear and the respect that humans and bears should have for each other,” Jacobsen said.
These steps may seem overwhelming and impossible to perform if actually put into a stressful situation. Bear education and instruction on how to use bear spray are big parts of Hunter’s Education classes in Montana, Jacobsen informs. Participants in Hunter’s Ed. programs are commonly 10-14 years old. “Hunter’s Education is a way we can educate hunters when they’re early in their career of hunting,” Jacobsen explained.
Both Jacobsen and Olyer describe bear spray as the suggestion deterrent. This is one of the reasons that Hunter’s Ed. classes teach how to use bear spray instead of defaulting to firing at a bear. “Accidental discharges or badly aimed firearms can kill people, while bear spray has never caused a fatality. Bear spray leaves the bear alive, and less likely to approach humans in the future,” the IGBC website notes, evoking back to the intense memories bears have. They will not forget the instance in which their nose and eyes were burned by this spray.
If Hunter’s Ed. is not your thing, Oyler mentioned a group called Bear Smart Big Sky which serves to educate people on bear safety and works to provide bear resistant garbage cans for many residences throughout town. This a a Big Sky focused group with the “goal of making bear smart actions a natural part of Big Sky’s culture so that bears are behaving wildly,” Kris Inman stated, coordinator of Bear Smart Big Sky council. The office is located and Ennis and more information about their programs can be found at https://www.wcscommunitypartnerships.org/work.
5. Grizzly bears are an important part of Montana’s natural heritage.
It is a unique part of living, playing or working in Madison county. Wildlife comes and goes and oftentimes people are awestruck by moose, fox or eagles right in their backyards. Bears are no different. We would consider ourselves lucky to spot a bear. “They’re a really extraordinary animal and one that has been iconic for this place, the place that we live,” Jacobsen said.