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Keep your bear spray handy

by Warren Illi
| August 3, 2023 12:00 AM

Managing grizzly bears is a difficult if not an impossible job for wildlife managers.

On a national and statewide basis, there is broad public support for the continuing recovery of grizzly bears. But I question the usefulness of national and statewide surveys when most of the people surveyed don’t have to live with the dangers of having grizzly bears in their backyards, threatening human life.

The new draft grizzly plan proposes to allow expansion of grizzly populations throughout Western Montana. Large male grizzlies are territorial and will kill intruding new bears. As young bears mature and leave the safety of their mother, they must find their own home range, away from habitat already occupied by older bears. So, these young grizzly bears must head west to the Flathead Valley or east to the plains of Eastern Montana or south toward Missoula.

Reasons for allowing grizzlies to expand west into the Flathead Valley is to allow those bears to augment the population of the Cabinet-Yack grizzly ecosystem and to provide genetic interchange. The problem with this bear management strategy is that there are over 116,000 people living in the Flathead Valley. Our valley also experiences several million visitors each year.

Bears and people don’t usually mix well. A couple of weeks ago a woman was killed by a grizzly while hiking near the town of West Yellowstone. Nine people have been killed by grizzlies in recent years around Yellowstone. Glacier Park officials recently killed a grizzly that was in a populated area of the park. About three years ago, a cyclist was dragged from her tent and sleeping bag and killed by a bear in the Blackfoot Valley.

Two years ago, a young man riding his mountain bike in the Middle Fork, bumped into a grizzly on the same trail and was killed. Last week bear management folks euthanized a grizzly bothering people camped and fishing along Hungry Horse Reservoir.

Euthanize is just a kinder and more gentle way to say killed. Either term means a bear died.

I live in the Flathead Valley and have a lake cabin in the Thompson Lakes area. The proposed grizzly management plan proposes to allow grizzlies to expand into my backyard. I am concerned about the safety of my family, and other residents and visitors to the Flathead. Both bears and people will die if the current bear management proposal is implemented.

I find nothing in the draft plan that provides for keeping grizzly bears away from people until they cause a conflict with humans. Bears can apparently go wherever they wish. People are supposed to self-protect themselves and their property by putting steel fencing around all fruit trees, flowers and gardens. Then, we are supposed to put another layer of protection by installing electric fencing around the steel fencing. We are supposed to roll our garbage cans and barbecues into our garages at night to reduce their attractiveness to bears. Only when a grizzly comes into conflict with our legal use of our property and threatens our lives, will Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks take some action to remove the bear and reduce the threat to our families.

Let me be very clear. I think most Montana citizens like grizzlies, but not in our yards and neighborhoods! We should not have to fortify our homes and yards. Children and citizens should not have to carry bear spray to enjoy their yards and neighborhoods.

The core grizzly bear areas have met the bear recovery densities that fully meet the recovery goals. The new recovery plan does not have to allow the continued spread of dangerous grizzlies into residential neighborhoods. Outside the core grizzly bear areas, there should be transition areas where bears can live, but at lower population densities, reducing the likelihood of bears coming into residential areas. Regulated hunting can be used to keep those bear populations in check. Bears that move into residential areas should be immediately trapped or killed or relocated.

I believe the new recovery plan needs to include very active plans to keep grizzly bears out of human neighborhoods. Period. If not, it is only a matter of time until grizzlies kill and injure people in the Flathead Valley.

Northwest Montana residents pay millions of dollars every year in taxes to state and county officials to protect us from two-legged predators. At the same time, wildlife officials propose to increase grizzly numbers that will be a growing threat to human safety.

That defies common sense.

I suggest that all county commissioners in Montana be asked where they want/don’t want grizzlies in their county. That will be very meaningful input to the new bear management plan.

Meanwhile, enjoy the great Flathead Outdoors, but keep your bear spray handy.