Arguably, a large part of Montana’s beauty is the animals that have inhabited the land for hundreds of years, including black bears and grizzly bears. While a person raised in "bear country" may not think twice of a bear spotting, a new arrival from Texas or Washington State may be bewildered.
"Be Bear Aware"—a treasured saying that can carry great gravity while living in Bear Country. While many expect bears to be in the thick backcountry, newcomers to the state and region may be taken aback when summiting the M trailhead to see a sow and a couple of cubs crossing.
“They are in urban areas; oftentimes they pass by without anyone seeing them, but we are in their habitat and they will come downtown and around our popular trailheads,” said Morgan Jacobsen, information officer for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Region 3.
Jacobsen is well-versed in bear preparedness and knowledge in our immediate area of Bozeman.
“It’s impossible to go through all of the different scenarios you could run into with a bear,” Jacobsen said, “but a real common issue is those close-encounter startles.”
At the moment, bears are entering what is known as hyperplasia: a time where bears are packing on pounds and protein in preparation for hibernation. Jacobsen says this state can cause these animals to be narrowly focused on consuming calories, instead of a nearby hiker coming near.
Preparing for a hike with a deterrent, such as bear spray, as well as keeping an eye out for bear scat, prints, or signs. Talking with fellow hikers, and traveling in groups can help keep noise levels higher, alerting bears of your presence, according to Jacobsen.
With that said, many in the valley have bought bear spray but either have it stored ineffectively or are not comfortable with its mechanics.
Forrest says accessibility in a high-stress situation is key with deterrents. Utilizing a waist or chest strap is extremely useful because when a grizzly bear is charging you, time is not on your side.
“There are several ways to stay safe in bear country. One would be to pick and choose a trail that has had few bear sightings," said Forrest. "Another way would be bear aware and carry some kind of deterrents, which allow you to have a better chance of survival."
Forrest goes on to explain that our beautiful state of Montana can be compared to the oceans surrounding the Hawaiian islands.
“We know there’s sharks in Hawaii, in the water, but I’m not going to not swim in Hawaii, right? So what am I going to do?” Forrest continues. “I’m going to be aware. Are there any dorsal fin in the water, I’d see if there’s been any shark sightings on the beach, and if not I’m going to go swim.”
The same can be said for our woods, trail system, and essentially the entire state of Montana. Look for signs of bears, talk with fellow hikers, and look for bear sighting reports around the trail or area you are heading towards, Forrest said.
Black bears are the most commonly reported bear in the Gallatin Valley, though the occasional grizzly bear wanders in from time to time, according to Jacobsen. He advises people to stay alert, aware, be prepared, and remember to enjoy our beautiful state.