Outdoors

Wildlife managers work to avoid grizzly encounters

As grizzly bear numbers continue to increase in the northern Rockies, the public must learn how to avoid dangerous encounters. (Associated Press)
As grizzly bear numbers continue to increase in the northern Rockies, the public must learn how to avoid dangerous encounters. (Associated Press)

Rules for staying safe in bear country are easily posted on signs, websites and pamphlets.

The hard part: getting folks to absorb information.

When grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains snuggled into winter dens a few months ago, they put to rest one of the most disturbing seasons for human-bear encounters in decades. The numbers included three human deaths and a record number of bears that had to be trapped and euthanized or moved.

The bears already have begun emerging from their dens this month, and wildlife managers are redoubling their efforts to give the public the tips they need to work educate the public.

From Yellowstone across four states to the North Cascades, wildlife professionals are trying to figure out how to get the word to more people.

Bear experts from across North America will be in Missoula Thursday and Friday for the International human-bear conflicts workshop sponsored by the University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation.

“After last year, we’re all reevaluating how to get the information out about bear safety,” said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“People throw away our pamphlets and walk right by signs that say carry bear spray and don’t hike alone. They do it anyway.

“We know the ways you can be safe in bear country. The question is how to get people to do those things. It’s truly frustrating to see people ignoring the advice and then seeing people getting seriously injured or killed.

“We’ll be asking ourselves, ‘How can we market this information better?’ ”

Adding to the equation: More people are going into grizzly country, and recovery efforts have resulted in more bears.

The message must be delivered not only to hikers and hunters, but also to people who live and work in bear country and those who go there for fishing, hunting, camping and other recreation.

“We thought we were doing pretty good,” Yellowstone Park biologist Kerry Gunther said last fall, pointing to a 30-year average of one bear-caused human injury annually in Yellowstone. “Maybe we were getting lucky.”

The first hiker in 25 years was killed by a grizzly in Yellowstone last summer. A few weeks later, a second hiker was killed by a bear.

Many bear education campaigns focus on saving the animals as they continue to recover after being removed from the list of endangered species.

Slogans such as “a fed bear is a dead bear” highlight the increased likelihood of bears becoming nuisances – and getting euthanized – if they get used to eating human food or garbage.

Backcountry campers in Yellowstone Park must watch a video on bear awareness before they can be issued a backcountry permit.

“We’re very successful in getting our message across on the cardinal rules of food storage and bear awareness and avoidance, and the need to carry bear spray as a preferred deterrent,” said Tim Reid, the park’s chief ranger.

“Then there’s the rest of the world,” Reid added – the day hikers. How to reach that much larger group as well as campers in bear areas outside the park is the focus of the drive to sharpen the region’s bear safety message.

The effort is against high odds.

The University of Wyoming surveyed more than 600 Grand Teton National Park visitors last year to gauge public awareness of bear safety protocols. Most of those polled showed a basic knowledge of food storage guidelines meant to keep hungry bears away. Almost all correctly answered that running from a bear can trigger aggression in the animal.

While 3 percent of those surveyed fell into the “clueless” category with no knowledge about food storage rules, another number was more disheartening to bear managers:

More than 12 percent – about one in eight people – said they knew so much about bears that they could predict when a bruin would turn aggressive.

Bear experts are startled by that sort of self-confidence, noting that biologists with years of experience say bears aren’t that predictable.

“The problem with communication is the illusion it’s actually happening,” said Servheen, looking back to last year’s incidents.

“My candid opinion is we have not been very successful at this. Perhaps we need a marketing firm on Madison Avenue – they’re really good at getting us to buy things we don’t want.”


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Rich Landers

Rich Landers

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