This past year has been turbulent for the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear. It was returned to the threatened species list last fall shortly after the state made plans to begin a grizzly hunt. Now, because of their uncertain status, people who live in grizzly habitat are frustrated, and some grizzly experts are fearful that the bear is losing support from its human neighbors, and experts say that local support is vital.
"There a lot of things that happened in the last year that have confused the public," said Dan Thompson, the head of the large carnivore section for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
He said, it's important to keep the public educated about the grizzlies.
"I hope we can get rid of some of the myths and try to increase people's understanding of all that's been done to try to recover the grizzly bear," said Thompson.
Thompson, along with four other grizzly bear experts representing Idaho, Montana and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, recently spoke to a public audience passionate about grizzlies.
One of their questions: What are one of the biggest threats to the grizzlies that currently exist? To Hilary Cooley, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, the answer is simple.
"I think for me, it's public support for bears and the fact that I think on multiple fronts folks that are dealing with bears and dealing with conflicts that we cannot seem to delist when we get to recovery. I think that's number one," said Cooley at the Can We Bear the Bias event.
The biggest threat to preserving grizzly bears on the landscape is keeping and gaining support from the public. Cooley said it's been frustrating, especially for people who have been living in grizzly habitat and have seen the populations grow.
"People take matters into their own hands. It's really easy to do and they are doing it."
Cooley did not elaborate on what that means, but it's clear local support for protecting the bear seems to be waning.
Toby Boudreau, the wildlife bureau assistant chief with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said this is part of the challenge that local officials now face.
"You cannot deny someone's emotional feelings about an animal or resource issue or anything. But I think facts help inform the discussion," he said.
That includes local managers educating residents and outdoor enthusiasts about how to share habitat as the grizzly population grows. For example, making sure to have bear deterrent trash cans, secure bird food, and electric fences around gardens and fruit-bearing trees, and to make noise and carry bear spray when you're in grizzly habitat. For bear managers, these are proven solutions.
"I've always found if you don't give people the facts, society makes up stuff to fill the gap," said Boudreau. "And so, I think it's imperative for agencies to do that."
The goal is to remind people that they can coexist with grizzlies even when they're protected status remains uncertain.
Chris Sheets was the mastermind behind the event and co-founder of the podcast, Right to Roam, that organized it. He said this type of interaction on a controversial subject is important.
"I really believe when the human condition is given a chance, when people are sat [down] face to face, you can see that magic happen," said Sheets. "I think you saw that people sat back, opened up their ears and minds and were forced to rethink some things."
But Sheets said this is certainly not the end of the discussion.
"So, for it to be a much more informed conversation, more depth, more nuisance, we're going to have to put up a couple more events, I think," he said.
Especially since grizzly bears will soon start to come out of hibernation, creating the potential for yet more conflicts on the horizon.