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More bears, more people set stage for conflict

| June 20, 2021 12:00 AM

There was a cautionary takeaway from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee following its meeting last week: plans for a historic number of visitors to national parks plus a peaking grizzly bear population have set the stage for an upswing in clashes between bears and tourists.

The rising numbers of tourists and grizzly bears certainly show the potential for a collision course. Glacier National Park saw a 2% increase in visitors during the month of May over May 2019 (May 2020 was during the pandemic and not a valid comparison) and the number of Glacier visitors year-to-date through May set a record.

Grizzlies have made a significant recovery in recent decades, with more than 1,000 grizzlies living in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, an 8,900-square-mile region that includes Glacier National Park. Another 700-plus grizzlies inhabit the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in and around Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone also saw record tourist numbers in May this year, up 11% from 2019.

Despite persistent messaging from agencies such as Fish, Wildlife and Parks to be “bear aware,” uninformed tourists are a fact of life in Montana, and we’ve all read about or have seen the videos of visitors who dare to get too close to wildlife, grizzlies included. And even the most informed and prepared hikers run the risk of surprising bears on the trails and in the backcountry. Unsecured garbage, bird feeders and untended fruit trees are chronic attractants for bears that then become habituated and often have to be euthanized.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee was formed in 1983 to help ensure recovery of viable grizzly bear populations and their habitat in the Lower 48 states through interagency coordination. At its meeting last week the committee was briefed on recent Montana legislation that changes how the state will manage grizzlies, according to an article by the Daily Montanan.

Of particular interest is a new law that stipulates Fish, Wildlife and Parks can only relocate grizzlies to areas approved by the FWP Commission, and restricts relocating conflict bears outside of designated recovery zones, the Daily Montanan reported.

Grizzly bears remain protected under federal law, but state lawmakers seem bent on passing laws that chip away at the bears’ protections, such as extending the trapping season to the end of February and allowing the killing of bears threatening livestock or people.

Seeing a grizzly bear in its natural habitat is on the bucket list of many tourists, and we’re fortunate to have an organization like the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee so invested in keeping grizzly populations robust. Visitors and locals need to do their part, too, though, and closely follow the advice of so many wildlife agencies when it comes to bear safety. Not doing so, and allowing these close encounters to occur, can be fatal for both humans and bears.