Grizzly bears are tucked away in their winter dens for at least another six weeks. But grizzly specialist Kim Annis is already embarking on northwestern Montana’s rural talk circuit.
Hired four years ago by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Annis speaks to hundreds of people each year at libraries, schools and community events about living in grizzly country.
At least 40 grizzlies – scientifically known as Ursus arctos horribilis, or “horrible northern bear” – inhabit the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem of North Idaho and northwestern Montana. Annis wants to arm people with information so they can “coexist amicably” with the big bears, she said.
She runs electric-fencing workshops to show people how to keep bears out of chicken coops, pig pens and orchards. She tells people what to look for in a bear spray. And she teaches people about grizzly behavior so they can reduce their chance of injury during encounters.
“When you deal with bear conflicts reactively, you’re already behind the curve,” said Annis, who worked with black bears in Florida before moving to Montana. “We’re trying to be proactive to prevent those conflicts from happening in the first place.”
Last year, four grizzlies and one hunter were killed during bear-human conflicts.
A Porthill, Idaho, man shot and killed a grizzly that was near the family’s pig pen. His children were outside at the time.
In another incident, a hunter mistook a grizzly for a black bear and shot it. The wounded bear attacked his hunting partner, and when the man shot the grizzly again, the bullet traveled through the bear and fatally struck the hunting partner. In a separate incident, another grizzly was killed in the Cabinet Mountains by a hunter who mistook it from a black bear.
A fourth grizzly was killed on private property near Libby in an incident determined to be self-defense..
One of Annis’ most recent audiences was employees at Revett Minerals’ Troy Mine, a copper and silver mine in Lincoln County. Many of the mine workers hunt, fish and camp in Montana’s backcountry, so Annis’ talk was more than an academic lecture.
Annis encourages people to rehearse possible scenarios, so they’ll act appropriately in adrenalin-charged situations.
Her first message: Avoid surprising bears by making loud noises, and be especially vigilant in areas such as creek bottoms, where the sound of the water and heavy brush make it difficult to hear and see.
Her second message: Cede ground. If people do see a grizzly, Annis tells them to back slowly away without drawing attention to themselves. People’s instinct is often to try to scare the grizzly off, but that often escalates the situation, she said.
“Shooting at the ground or making loud noises or shooting over the bear’s head can force the bear into a defensive position,” she said. “Now they feel threatened, and they’re going to do something about it.”
Her talk, given with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Wayne Kasworm, has become an annual event at the Troy Mine. Bruce Clark, the mine manager, thinks the sessions have helped reduce animosity toward the federally protected grizzlies.
“In our employees, we see less irritation with the grizzly bear,” he said. “As we become more educated, we accept the bear more than we did in the past, and we accept some of the changes that are coming because of the bear.”
Clark, 56, grew up in Troy. He recalls the economic hardships that resulted from the shutdown of logging operations in the 1970s and ’80s to protect grizzly habitat, and local residents’ resentment. But unless the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population rebounds, the land-use restrictions will continue, he said.
Revett Minerals, which is based in Spokane Valley, has a vested interest in a healthy grizzly population. The company wants to open a second mine, which is still in the permitting stages. As part of the compensation for the proposed Rock Creek Mine, Revett Minerals pays part of Annis’ salary for grizzly bear outreach.
Last year, the Troy Mine also began offering a bear spray check-out program for its workers. Austin Wilson, the mine’s health and safety supervisor, encourages employees to carry canisters of the $50 bear spray when they’re camping, fishing, hiking or hunting.
All of the canisters were checked out during hunting season. “I think the proof in the pudding is that we’re now willing to use bear spray instead of guns,” Clark said.
Kasworm, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, has worked on grizzly issues in Northwestern Montana for nearly 30 years.
“I don’t think the community is as polarized over grizzly bears as they’ve been in the past,” he said. “I would say there is a greater acceptance of grizzly bears. It’s harder to say why.”
In other areas, research has concluded that intensive one-on-one education reduces human-wildlife conflicts. But Annis said it’s too soon to assess the results of her outreach.
The number of bear conflict calls she fields each year is still increasing. That’s to be expected, Annis said, as more people learn that she’s available as a resource.
She lends out portable electric fences and bear-proof garbage cans to rural residents who couldn’t otherwise afford them. And she tries to instill a humble attitude among people who recreate in grizzly territory.
Even bear spray has limitations, she said. It’s designed to create a barrier that allows an individual to leave the area without a major injury.
“In grizzly bear encounters,” Annis said, “you need to be the one willing to leave.”