As grizzlies continue to expand their range, communities try to prepare and limit future conflicts
The grizzly bear is one of the more controversial species in the West. It’s listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But some experts and landowners think the population in and around Yellowstone National Park should be considered recovered. Meanwhile, some environmentalists say that in order for that grizzly population to be fully healthy, it needs more genetic diversity.
One way to do that is by allowing grizzlies from a central Montana ecosystem to travel south and breed with bears in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, called creating connectivity. But that 100 miles or so between the two ecosystems is populated with over 200,000 people. Two communities in that 100 mile swath are preparing for the nearly inevitable arrival of grizzlies.
Last year, junior high school students in Alberton, Montana had their school day interrupted for something unusual.
“We did have one bear shot in Alberton last year,” recalled Bob Summerfield. “And it was right within sight of the school. And that really had an impact on the students.”
Summerfield, who heads up the Brovold Community Orchard in Alberton, said fall 2022 was an especially bad year for black bears. That was because there wasn’t much natural food. It was felt in the community of about 400.
“So the fruit that we did have [in the orchard], the bears had to access it by climbing in the trees and getting the fruit. And so in the process, they broke a lot of limbs out of the trees and caused a lot of damage. So that was kind of the impetus,” he said.
The impetus for Alberton deciding it wanted to become a bear smart community. That means eliminating things in town that may attract bears. They started with the community orchard where people take walks, school trips or just hang out.
“[This] is our brand new fence,” Summerfield said as the fence gate creaked open. “And so far, it's been 100 percent effective at keeping the bears out.”
The community installed an electric fence in mid-August. That was in preparation for when black bears come into town but also for when grizzlies arrive.
“Grizzly bear populations are continuing to expand,” said Summerfield. “And they will be here. It's not a matter of if they will be here, it's when they will be in town.”
That’s because grizzlies have been spotted very near Alberton, just across the river and in surrounding wilderness areas.
Alberton sits on the edge of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. It’s prime grizzly habitat, but as more of them are populating the area, younger males are wandering further out looking for new territory.
“We're already kind of getting into habitats that are less suitable for grizzly bears simply because there's more human activity on the landscape,” said Frank van Manen, the team lead of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.
He and other scientists have tracked grizzlies as they stray further away from protected habitats like Yellowstone National Park.
“Whether it's small towns, agriculture, human developments, roads, those are all factors that contribute to making areas less suitable for grizzly bears and creating a higher risk of mortality,” said van Manen.
Human-made attractants like garbage and fruit trees lure the bears into town. If the animal ends up relying on those food sources, it stays in populated areas for longer and there is a higher chance for the bear to get killed, whether by accident or as a safety decision by wildlife officials.
So these areas are less fit for animals to live in. Lori Roberts works for the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department and is the information education and outreach chair advisor for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. She said these areas are meant to be connective zones -- areas where bears can pass through to more livable ecosystems.
“We're not looking to have bears in these connectivity zones be at crazy population levels,” said Roberts. “We're not gonna have 500 bears, but we do need those [bears] so that we can have natural connectivity and genetic movement between these ecosystems.”
Roberts said some towns in this connectivity region know that they are in it and are starting to ask themselves questions.
“Do you have any wildlife corridors that move through your community that would bring bears down there at certain times a year? And so, going through the community and assessing what would be potential bear conflict areas,” Roberts presented some examples.
Bear Smart Communities
Missoula, Montana, just 30 minutes east of Alberton, was one of those communities that asked itself those questions. And officials realized the community of about 78,000 people has a lot of potential bear conflict areas.
Erin Edge and Chris Servheen stood in the middle of a treed, green area with a creek that runs through it known as Greenough Park in Missoula. Both Edge and Servheen are part of Missoula’s Bear Smart working group.
“Bears frequent this park and it’s also heavily frequented by people that live here, using it for just kind of hanging out by the creek up to running, to walk in just to just enjoy the outdoors,” said Edge.
Both Alberton and Missoula’s bear smart programs are modeled after a program in British Columbia. The way it works is a community creates a working group that develops a step by step protocol of how to make a community bear proof.
“If we could solve the fruit trees, the bird feeders, the pet food and the garbage, we can have most of the issues solved,” said Servheen.
Missoula created a conflict management plan based on those major attractants. That plan got the community involved through regulations, education and awareness.
“We've got the city and the county unanimously now in favor of providing these regulations so that all the [garbage] cans will be bear resistant cans in the next three years. That's number one. That's 49 percent of the problem,” said Servheen.
Forty-nine percent of the bear conflicts in Missoula are from the animal getting into a garbage can. Recently, both the Missoula City Council and County Commission passed regulations requiring garbage cans be bear resistant by 2026.
And they’ll continue to work on decreasing those human attractants until the day the grizzlies start passing through. The key is to keep those grizzlies passing through and not lingering in the area munching on garbage or fruit
“The goal is to not [have bears] go to the house that you can see from where we're standing right now and tip over their garbage and eat garbage and then decide, ‘Oh, you know what, that garbage is way easier, way tastier for me to get into than chokecherries,’” said Edge.
Possibility of genetic diversity
It turns out that getting the genetic diversity that some say the Yellowstone population needs to get off the ESA list could take only one or two grizzly bears.
“It would only take one or two animals that come into the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem [that] would breed with a Yellowstone bear and then introduce genetic material from the Northern Continental Divide,” said grizzly scientist van Manen.
Van Manen stressed that Yellowstone bears are fine in the short term. Genetic diversity is really more important decades or hundreds of years from now. But even so, the interbreeding could happen quicker than expected.
“It might have already happened and we just haven't documented it yet because our genetic analysis takes a little bit of time to be completed,” he said.
But whether it has happened yet or not, van Manen said these bear smart communities are key to making the connective route more accessible for grizzlies. That could be the final key to taking the Yellowstone grizzly bear population off of the Endangered Species List.