In the grizzlies' home, humans are being taught how to share
There's been lots of buzz about the Idaho man who was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine this month for shooting a young grizzly bear that was climbing into the pig pen behind his house. The man said he was afraid that his children, who had been playing nearby, might be in danger.
In fact, federal wildlife managers say, grizzly bears nearly always come out on the short end in the increasing number of brushes between humans and bears across the northern Rockies. Last year, 21 grizzlies died at the hands of people in northwest Montana alone.
Since 2000, nearly 70 grizzlies in that area -- one of six recovery zones for the threatened animals across the West -- have had to be killed by wildlife managers because they became attracted to food in people's yards or to livestock, according a report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Trains and cars killed nearly 50.
The real culprit? In the view of many wildlife advocates, it's the proliferation of people in grizzly country.
"The greatest threat to wildlife right now in the Rocky Mountains is private land development," Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an interview.
"These new residents can be particularly troubling, because they come with this idea that they want to go back and live off the land and have chickens and all this stuff, and they move into bear habitat. The spring comes and the snow starts to melt, and they call up Fish and Game and say, 'There's a bear in my yard, come and get it,'" Servheen said. "What we want to tell them is to move, but we can't, because they're already there."
There's good news, though. New efforts are under way to minimize conflicts between people and bears. State and federal wildlife officials, in concert with private groups such as the Defenders of Wildlife, are working with landowners in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to batten down against grizzlies and remove the lures pulling bears out of the mountains and into neighboring back yards.
Defenders of Wildlife bought a bear-resistant trash bin for a community near Glacier National Park, for example, and the group is paying homeowners $100 of the estimated $200 it costs to put up an electric fence around, say, a chicken coop or a pig pen.
Along with government officials, the group is working to teach rural residents how to keep garbage indoors or in bear-proof containers, how to hang bird feeders where bears can't get them, and how to protect sheep bedding grounds. In Seeley Lake, Mont., a telephone tree was set up so residents can warn each other when a grizzly is on the loose.
Louisa Willcox, who works on grizzly bear recovery for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said a mining company in the Cabinet Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border is paying part of the cost for someone to deal with grizzly conflicts, while conservation groups in the valley below are buying land near grizzly zones to keep it from being subdivided.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks offers a series of bear-related programs, and a website, Missoula Bears, has been set up to teach urban fringe residents how to put their barbecues in the garage, feed pets indoors, store horse food in lock-down containers, pick up fruit from backyard orchards and electrically fence their vegetable gardens and compost piles.
The Missoula City Council last year adopted an ordinance requiring residents of designated "bear buffer zones" around the city to take special measures to protect their trash.
"Putting an electric fence around a garbage dump or a chicken coop means that the former attractant is no longer a problem. Grizzly bears will not get a food reward, and will continue on their way. It works tremendously well," John Proctor, Rocky Mountain representative for the Defenders of Wildlife, said in an interview.
"It's really sad when we kill grizzly bears simply for getting into our trash or our livestock. The bear pays with its life for our mistakes," Proctor said. "We're going to kill our most threatened and endangered wildlife over a $5 chicken?"
-- Kim Murphy in Bozeman, Mont.
Photo: Grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies. Credit: Chris Servheen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service