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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tourist numbers fell in Gardiner last year, but more bears visited

Bears have already been spotted in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.  (Courtesy/Grand Teton National Park)
By Brett French Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – Tourists may have avoided Gardiner last summer and fall, but bear visits to the Yellowstone National Park border town were up. One female grizzly and her cubs even strolled onto the school’s football field.

Visitation to Gardiner dropped because in June a historic flood washed out the North Entrance Road to the park. Yellowstone is Gardiner’s economic lifeline, since the town and park entrance are next door to each other. With access to the park limited, tourists migrated elsewhere, giving the community an almost eerie ghost town feel.

Bears may have noticed and sensed an opportunity. Overall, there were 50 grizzly conflicts in the area reported to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 29 of which were in and around town.

“Fewer people might have made it less of an obstacle for bears to be in town,” said Danielle Oyler, a wildlife information specialist with FWP in southwestern Montana.


Oyler, who grew up in nearby Mammoth Hot Springs – Yellowstone National Park’s headquarters, said residents have always seen the occasional black bear and grizzly. That’s especially true in the fall when bears are eating as much as possible to pack on calories for hibernation.

“There’s always been bears in the Gardiner Basin,” Oyler said, especially at night when they may come in to raid apple trees.

Bears have even scared some Gardiner trick or treaters on Halloween, or maybe the bear was frightened since it ran off.


Oyler lived in the area in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In just two decades, however, a lot has changed in the region. For one, there are more grizzly bears on the landscape. More bears mean some of the animals may wander farther and be more likely to run into humans.

There were 152 grizzly conflicts reported to FWP in southwestern Montana. The average is around 80 to 100 per year, said Jeremiah Smith, FWP’s bear management specialist in the region. It’s estimated about 1,000 grizzlies live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

“A lot of that is just more bears and more people,” he said. “There are a lot more people in the woods these days.”

Gardiner has also seen a change in its social fabric. With more homes being rented out as vacation properties, there are visitors uneducated about proper bear safety measures, such as securing attractants like trash that make an easy meal for nosy bears.

“Hopefully, it was just a fluke,” Oyler said. “There’s nothing we can’t find a way to secure.”

Evidence of successful bear education efforts in the past included a Facebook post by one Gardiner resident who wrote: “Our apples are picked; our plums are picked; our potatoes are dug; our bearproof trashcan is secured; our yard light is on at night; the bear spray is in the windowsill next to the back door; we are ready for our grizzly neighbors to take their annual fall strolls. Hoping for some pictures soon on the trailcam in the yard.”


The message of bear awareness is especially important to state and federal wildlife officials because over the winter residents and visitors may have dropped their guards. Now bears are coming out of hibernation, and they are hungry. The first grizzly was spotted in Yellowstone’s backcountry in early March. On March 22, officials in neighboring Grand Teton National Park announced the first sighting of a grizzly rambling across the snowy landscape.

Warmer weather will also lure backcountry skiers, snowshoers and antler hunters deeper into the woods. Two years ago, a West Yellowstone photographer was killed in a grizzly mauling along the Madison River in April. Last spring, a Livingston man who was antler hunting was killed in a bear mauling in the Paradise Valley.

“Bears are waking up,” Smith said. “Horn hunters need to make noise when they’re out in the woods.”

He noted March 1 is also when the national forest enacts its bear storage order, requiring campers and picnickers to have their coolers and other attractants locked up and out of reach of bears when they aren’t around.

Black bears

Smith has not calculated all of the black bear conflicts his office responded to last year, but those also kept bear managers busy. Black bears are also found in more areas than grizzlies, so they are a common cause of reports – not just in Montana, but across the United States.

In 2021, Connecticut reported 8,600 bear sightings in 156 of the state’s 169 towns. In California’s Stanislaus National Forest, sandwiched between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, black bears have grown smart and bold.

“People’s cars were getting broken into,” the forest’s Casey Jardine said. “Coolers were destroyed. It wasn’t a good situation at all. Add to that the dangers caused to the bears who become habituated to eating human food and then teach that practice to their young. Together, it creates an unfair and untenable situation.”

To help thwart the stealthy bears, the forest installed 35 bear-proof food storage boxes at campgrounds.

Oyler said FWP considers incidents with black bears as highlighting where there could be similar problems with grizzlies.

“We treat both really seriously,” she said. “You don’t want a food-conditioned bear of either species. It’s dangerous for humans and the bears.”


Humans aren’t the only ones who suffer in bear encounters. Last year there were 49 documented grizzly bear deaths in the GYE. That was down from 69 in 2021. Since 2015, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team has documented 409 grizzly deaths in the GYE – an average of 58 a year – many caused by humans, but also natural mortalities.

One of those bear mortalities last fall included a grizzly sow that was euthanized – her two cubs were relocated to a zoo – after she raided a chicken coop in the Gardiner Basin. The bear had ignored electric fencing as well as hazing efforts that included being shot with rubber bullets, paintballs and noise-making devices, FWP reported.

Last May in Idaho’s Caribou-Teton National Forest, five grizzlies – two adult females and three yearlings – were captured and killed by agency officials for “numerous site-related conflicts.” Along Wyoming’s Greybull River, six grizzlies were killed in management actions.

Also in September, a group of hunters shot a grizzly bear in self-defense on private land west of Emigrant in the Paradise Valley north of Gardiner. Another hunter, in the nearby Tom Miner Basin, ran into a grizzly and shot at it with a pistol. The bear ran away, FWP said.

“Seeing a bear in its natural habitat is an awe-inspiring experience,” Grand Teton public affairs officer Evan Guzik noted in a news release. “However, living and recreating in bear country requires awareness and actions on our part to keep bears and people safe.”