Kyler Alm froze. A branch snapped. Something was within the forest behind him. Alm, a 19-year-old hunter with a permit for a bull elk, nocked an arrow in his bow and waited. The tawny fur of a moving animal appeared through the trees, but something wasn’t right. Alm, who’d come alone into the woods, didn’t see antlers. Fearing a charge, Alm aimed his nine-millimeter pistol at the bottom ahead of the bear and fired three shots. The animal retreated a couple of yards, stopped, and again turned to face the young man, huffing repeatedly. Alm protected. But the bottom was slick from rain, and he slipped and fell backward. That’s when he heard enormous paws crashing across the bottom.

I thought needless to say the bear was coming at me Alm says. To his great fortune, it wasn’t. Alm leaped to his feet and saw the rear of the animal lope away into the forest. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten out of the mountains that fast, Alm says about the get back his truck. Four days later, a motion-activated camera within the Bitterroot foothills captured a grizzly helping itself to the fruit of a fruit tree during a rural yard. the 2 incidents splashed across in Missoula, the nearby city of 80,000, where residents aren’t familiar with grizzly bears within the hills around town.

Right now people have quite a false security, Montana gamekeeper Justin Singleterry, who investigated Alm’s bear encounter told the Missoulian in October. Grizzly bears are reoccupying significant areas of their former range, says veteran bear biologist Chris Servheen of the steadily increasing grizzly populations within the Northern Rockies. So don’t expect that simply because you’re outside [Glacier] or Yellowstone that you’re not getting to see a grizzly. Servheen recently retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where he oversaw grizzly management in America for 35 years, and he insists people and bears can get along if people take proper precautions.

As grizzly bears expand their home in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming into places where they haven’t been seen during a century or more, they’re increasingly encountering humans. Things intensified last summer as trails and campgrounds across the region flooded with inexperienced tourists seeking refuge within the outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic. Grizzly attacks spiked. Bear managers were inundated with calls about grizzlies stepping into the garbage, chickens, and other draws. Dispersing grizzlies even came unexpectedly on the brink of neighboring states—a remote camera in Wyoming captured a grizzly only 20 miles from the Utah border and a radio-collared bear in Idaho nearly roamed into Oregon and Washington. Ultimately, 2020 offered a nerve-jangling check out of the challenges and sophisticated way forward for grizzly bears in America.

HOW MANY BEARS ARE ENOUGH?

Grizzly bears occupy a conflicted, toothy corner of the American psyche—we revere them whilst they haunt our nightmares. you’ll take out at Grizzly Grocery before climbing Grizzly Peak or hiking Grizzly Gulch. you’ll have your furnace serviced by Grizzly Plumbing and Heating. Here within the Northern Rockies, and everywhere, grizzlies are found, people erect statues of them, frame pictures on their walls, and, if they see a grizzly within the wild, tell breathless stories around campfires and dinner tables for the remainder of their lives. Ask the tourists from around the world that flood into Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks what they most hope to ascertain, and their answer is usually the same a grizzly.

The western half of the U.S. teemed with grizzlies at the time of European contact, with an estimated 50,000 or more living alongside Native Americans, from the Pacific to the midwestern prairies and into the mountains of Mexico. By the first 1970s, after centuries of relentless shooting, trapping, and poisoning by settlers, 600 to 800 grizzlies remained on a mere 2 percent of their former home in the alpine fastness of the Northern Rockies. Their slide into oblivion was stemmed in 1975 with their listing under the species Act and therefore the legal protections it afforded.

Today, during a testament to the facility of wildlife populations to rebound when given room to try to do so, there are an estimated 2,000 or more grizzly bears within the contiguous U.S. (and approximately 25,000 in Canada and 30,000 in Alaska). Their recovery has been so successful that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has twice within the past 13 years attempted to de-list the species, last in 2017, which might loosen legal protections and permit them to be hunted. Both efforts were overturned in court thanks to lawsuits from conservation groups. For now, grizzlies remain listed.

In the lower 48, grizzlies are anchored by two populations in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks and surrounding ecosystems. Glacier bears represent the southern fringe of the good, uninterrupted mass of grizzlies that inhabit wildlands from Montana to Alaska. Yellowstone grizzlies, against this, have survived on a genetic island, geographically isolated from this larger population, just like the dot at rock bottom of an exclamation mark. Genetic isolation leaves bears susceptible to inbreeding, disease, climate-induced habitat changes, and other existential threats. it had been the Yellowstone subpopulation of grizzlies that the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to delist first Glacier grizzlies were to follow), but their effort was overturned largely thanks to their lack of connectivity. For grizzlies to survive in America, we’d like more bears in additional places. The question is, will people allow it?

KEEPING BEARS OUT OF TROUBLE

The challenge of roaming grizzly bears isn’t one among space there’s ample habitat, whether it’s in Montana Wyoming or maybe Colorado or California where conservation groups have involved reintroduction but rather around what biologists call social acceptance. In other words, some people just don’t like grizzly bears which may make life more complicated for folks that live near them. If precautions aren’t taken, grizzlies can become a nuisance, occasionally killing livestock or searching through yards for food—which may cause preemptive strikes on the grizzlies themselves. On November 9, a pair of illegally shot grizzlies were found dumped near Bigfork, Montana, on, of all places, Bear Creek Road. Eleven days later, another dead grizzly was found with its legs stop within the nearby Yaak Valley.

Despite such animosity, fatal attacks on humans are rare. on average, there’s one fatal encounter every three years within the lower 48. much more common is people killing bears by illegally shooting them, striking them in vehicles, or inadvertently feeding them. Every year dozens of grizzly bears are euthanized by wildlife managers across the region after they become dangerously conditioned to what biologists call “attractants”—chickens, compost piles, birdseed, and other food sources—left out by homeowners. Bears are quick learners, and once they taste the straightforward rewards of human-supplied food at homes or campsites, they’ll invariably hunt down more, guided by their powerful sense of smell. Grizzlies are documented detecting the scent of an animal carcass over 10 miles away.

Once grizzlies become food-conditioned, bear managers typically capture them in large, metal traps shaped like airplane fuselages and baited with the legs of deer roadkill. Then, for human safety, they euthanize them. Thus the old saying, “A fed bear may be a dead bear. Consider the pair of grizzlies, a young brother and sister, in West Yellowstone, Montana, that this summer repeatedly ate up trash and pet food left unsecured outside homes. They were eventually trapped and euthanized on September 1 after nosing into an occupied camping tent. If people remove food and other odiferous attractants from their properties and campsites, grizzlies will typically travel by without trouble. Installing electric fencing around chicken coops and other animal quarters is additionally highly effective at repelling grizzlies, which usually only got to be shocked once to remain away forever.

The ideal is to possess a clean, attractant-free landscape where bears can undergo without learning bad habits, says James Jonkel, a longtime biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks who manages bears in and around Missoula. Recent studies of radio-collared bears in Montana’s Swan Valley surprised biologists by illustrating the power of grizzlies to measure among and move through populated rural areas unnoticed. In other words, when people tolerate their presence, grizzlies peacefully follow suit—as long as attractants don’t lead them to bother.

Grizzly bears aren’t the sole species increasing in number within the Northern Rockies; human populations also are growing. The 200 approximately miles that separate the Yellowstone and Glacier ecosystems encompass a fast-growing region of snow-mantled mountains where valleys are thick with cattle ranches, small towns, and therefore the booming small cities of Missoula and Bozeman. Gallatin County, north of Yellowstone, has grown by 30 percent within the past decade, and its commercial hub of Bozeman, population 49,000, is currently the fastest-growing micropolitan area within the country, with a projected 50 percent increase within the next 20 years. Missoula County and other counties in between also are seeing double-digit growth.

The pandemic has turbocharged this migration, with urbanites relocating to outposts across the region. Stacy Courville, the bear biologist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes north of Missoula, where the picturesque Mission Valley entrances home buyers, describes the shock on a replacement resident’s face when she learned that a grizzly had recently been trapped near her home, where a little, unprotected grove served as a strong draw. They’re new residents and that they didn’t realize they were in bear country,” he says. I think that’s happening everywhere.

Similarly, last summer the region saw an unprecedented crush of inexperienced vacationers who overlooked food and garbage at campsites and flooded the area’s public lands, with little knowledge of grizzly protocols. There was an enormous effect this summer says Jeff Mow, superintendent of Glacier Park, who plans to extend the park’s educational specialization in responsible recreation in bear country. We had an outsized number of visitors…who didn’t skills to behave with some very basic skills.

The pandemic summer also saw a record number of physical encounters with grizzlies, which bears see as defensive and that we label attacks. Big Sky, Montana, a resort miles northwest of Yellowstone, saw its first grizzly attack in 23 years on Memorial Day. The second occurred 17 days later, and therefore the third came in September. None were fatal, but one nearly was. All caused significant injuries. According to Megan Robbins, a researcher at the University of Montana who surveyed grizzly attacks, the typical number of attacks is typically fewer than six per annum within the lower 48. This year there have been. Some biologists suspect the pandemic contributed to the increase in grizzly attacks, first by largely removing humans, many of whom were under stay-at-home orders, from bear habitat within the spring, drawing grizzlies into once-popular areas they’ll have typically avoided, followed by a deluge of recreationists within the summer.

Servheen insists attacks are avoidable, particularly if recreationists and hunters carry and properly use bear spray, which has proven simpler at repelling grizzlies than guns and ultimately leaves the animals unharmed. People that are listening in grizzly habitat, and carry bear spray and resound and aren’t alone, he says. If you are doing that you simply are often pretty safe.

MAKING THE CONNECTION

As in Missoula, the residents of Bozeman are wont to live without grizzly bears nearby. When a grizzly was seen on October 17 only five miles outside town, it sent shock waves through the community, whose trails are coursing with mountain bikers, trail runners, and other recreationists, an increasing number recently relocated from urban areas. Montana state bear biologist Kevin Frey, who oversees the Bozeman region, cares about the potential for future conflict. Folks got to awaken and realize this isn’t Central Park he says.

Meanwhile, grizzlies are pushing ever closer to establishing the critical link between Yellowstone and Glacier that will ensure the health of the southern bears—and allow them to be de-listed. Along the border of Montana and Idaho, the Bitterroot Mountains, where Alm encountered that grizzly, could help create a critical link between the two parks. Biologist Jonkel, along with conservation groups like Defenders of Wildlife and People and Carnivores, is working to prepare residents in the Bitterroot Valley for the arrival of grizzlies by teaching them bear-friendly practices.

Frey is doing the same in the Big Hole Valley to the south, where grizzlies have also recently appeared. Their efforts, and those of land managers and biologists who work to keep bears and people safe across the region, may soon be put to the test. When spring arrives, the unusually large number of grizzlies that received human food “rewards” from campers and residents this year will now be roaming the Northern Rockies looking for their next meal.