Grizzly Bears, © Michael S. Quinton / National Geographic Stock

Getting Along with Grizzlies

Erin Edge, Rockies and Plains Associate

The Flathead Reservation, composed of 1.3 million acres in northwest Montana, is situated at the base of the Mission Mountains and is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), which includes the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai Tribes. On the eastern side of the Flathead, the majestic Mission mountain range rises up with its tall, snow-capped peaks, lush avalanche chutes, wetlands and mountain lakes. Amidst such varied habitats, the Flathead Reservation is home to grizzly bears, wolves, peregrine falcons, elk, bighorn sheep, fisher, lynx, wolverine and myriad other wildlife species.

“Although each of the Tribes on the Reservation possess distinctive beliefs and practices, the people share one important similarity: Tribal people value the Earth — its air, water, and land — as the foundation of Indian culture…The Tribes believe everything in nature is embodied with a spirit. The spirits are woven tightly together to form a sacred whole (the Earth). Changes, even subtle changes that affect one part of this web affect other parts.”
– Excerpt from the Flathead Reservation’s Comprehensive Resources Plan

These Confederated Tribes have a long history of working in support of their deep respect for this connection with nature. In 1982, when the Tribal Council defined the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness Management Plan, it was the first time in the United States that a Tribal government had decided to protect lands as wilderness. Along with this significant achievement, the Tribal Council established a special Grizzly Bear Management Zone. This area, which covers approximately 10,000 acres, is critical to grizzlies while they feed on insects — a rich and vital source of protein — from mid-July to early October, and is completely closed to human activity during these months.

Grizzly_Michael S. Quinton_Nat Geo

The grizzly’s hump distinguishes it from black bears

Grizzly bears are a keystone predator, meaning they have a top-down effect on entire ecosystems. Through their scat, bears help disperse seeds throughout a region, which helps the ecosystem’s vegetation spread. Bears can also help limit the population density of certain animals like deer, elk and other ungulates by preying on them. This keeps populations in balance with other species and prevents these types of animals, which feed on foliage and other vegetation, from overgrazing the area. Just as grizzly bears need intact ecosystems to survive, these ecosystems need grizzly bears to help keep them healthy. In 1975, grizzlies were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Due to protections under the ESA and efforts of agencies like the CSKT, grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 are now estimated at 1,400-1,600 bears and are expanding into historic ranges. Things can get a little tricky, however, when balancing a recovering grizzly population with rapid human development.

Land ownership in the Flathead valley bottom is complex, full of residential areas, towns, agricultural lands and an extremely busy highway, creating a daily challenge to tribal biologists who routinely answer human-grizzly conflict calls. The largest threat to grizzly bear recovery is human-related mortalities. For example, chickens are an increasingly popular backyard sustainable food item. In grizzly country, chickens are an enticing treat that can lure the bears into an area they may have otherwise avoided. Grizzlies that receive a “food reward” like this often return to the same location, or may even search out similar food at other locations, leading to a bear that is food-conditioned and comfortable around human activity. These bears may do things that lead management agencies to believe they are a human safety concern, like paying frequent visits to people’s homes. Sadly, these bears are often either relocated or euthanized if a zoo cannot be found to take them. Sometimes they can be killed by homeowners who perceive them as a threat. More often than not, something as simple as an electric fence can prevent these conflicts from occurring.

An electric fence around a chicken coop can prevent a lot of trouble for grizzlies and humans alike.

In an effort to combat the escalating conflicts between grizzlies and people, tribal biologists work tirelessly to address these threats by encouraging people to use nonlethal tools like electric fences and bear-resistant garbage containers. Recently, the CSKT has offered these bear-resistant containers free of charge to residents on the Mission front. They also actively purchase and protect lands to try to secure the remaining suitable habitat for grizzly bears in the valley bottom.

We are happy to be working with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to assist with these efforts to provide electric fencing incentives and outreach and education to residents. This region provides a connective corridor to other grizzly bear recovery areas such as the southern Bitterroot ecosystem, and the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem to the west, so it is vital to the long-term recovery of grizzlies.

In the coming year, we will continue to work with our partners to promote the use of electric fencing through workshops, one-on-one assistance with setup and design, and an incentive program. We will also be working closely with biologists to identify new approaches to reduce conflicts between wildlife and humans or livestock. While there is much yet to be done, it is heartening to work in an area where wildlife and wild places are honored and appreciated, and where the road to coexistence seems a little bit brighter.

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