WEST GLACIER — It’s that time of year in Montana again.
We’re well into the season of returning from hibernation - that is, while humans are starting to get out and enjoy the outdoors that surround us, bears are too
For example in Missoula, the city has already had plenty of bear sightings - as the animals emerge from the woods to look for food like apples.
The University of Montana Police Department put out four emergency notifications for bears spotted near campus in just a few weeks this Spring.
Grizzly-human interactions are challenging to track statistically because details of encounters are often unknown but it's it’s imperative to stay safe in bear country.
Carl Mock died after sustaining injuries from a grizzly attack in late April after being mauled while fishing just outside Yellowstone National Park. The bear was killed after charging a group investigating the incident - a nearby moose carcass determined to be a factor in the aggression.
MTN News interviewed Glacier National Park Carnivore Biologist John Waller to learn more about grizzlies, who live as protected species in the park -- and about how "Night of the Grizzlies" became a pivotal moment for bear management.
“In ‘67 at the "Night at the Grizzlies," that was when two young women were killed by grizzly bears, two different grizzly bears in two different places in the park on the same night," Waller explained, "And if you think about the odds of that happening, it's a very unusual event but it got everybody's attention in a big way, and almost overnight the Park Service realized it had to change the way it managed bears.”
Before August 12, 1967, no deadly grizzly encounters had been recorded at Glacier National Park. Tragically that night two women lost their lives while camping while a man was severely mauled. “Prior to that, people were a little sloppy when it came to their behavior around bears particularly food and garbage storage," Waller explained.
That night led to a dramatic shift in bear management as the Park set rigorous new requirements for staff and visitors, and tools like bear-proof garbage and food storage became mandatory. “What we learned was that bears that are given free access to human foods and garbage are more likely to attack people and to kill people,” Waller said.
As bear management has increased, so has the grizzly bear population. Waller told us despite the growth, bear, and human conflicts have decreased in the park.
“We're expecting over three million people this year. And, you know, you put three million people in a million-acre National Park with several hundred grizzly bears and you would expect something might happen but nothing ever does. So I attribute that a lot to the proactive work we've done to minimize those conflicts but also educate visitors how to behave in bear country,” Waller said. "And also I think bear spray has been huge too."
Bear spray is an essential tool to carry when accessing the outdoors. Knowing how and when to use it is key.
Because grizzlies are a protected species, it's illegal to harm, harass, or kill grizzly bears, except in cases of self-defense or the defense of others. Regardless, hunting is prohibited in Glacier and Yellowstone, but for grizzlies in the rest of Montana, that may change.
De-listing these predators from the Endangered Species Act is currently a major point of debate. Conflicts with livestock owners and increased range as grizzlies grow in numbers are concerning to many Montanans. However, on March 31, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is recommending no change to the current listed status.