By Kris Inman EBS CONTRIBUTOR
It was a great winter for skiers but the conditions that are best for winter sports enthusiasts provide unique challenges for wildlife. Record snow fall with temperatures well below zero resulted in deeper than normal snow depths that remained on the ground for an extended period this winter.
These conditions made it difficult for deer, elk and pronghorn to accesses the grasses lying beneath the snow. In turn, this forced the herbivores to rely on their fat reserves to not only fuel them when the grasses weren’t available, but to also keep them warm. As a result, we can expect to see more winter-killed animals this spring.
The carcasses of winter-killed animals will be a boon for bears who recently emerged from dens and are looking for food throughout the Big Sky area. Because Big Sky is situated alongside some of the best bear habitat, you should be prepared to see a bear on any of the area trails. For people, this adds another element to be on the lookout for when out and enjoying spring outdoor activities.
If you smell or see a carcass, or see concentrations of scavenger birds like ravens, don’t investigate it, as it is likely the carcass has or will attract a bear. Once a bear finds a carcass, it will defend this valuable food source.
The biggest challenge to conserving bears today is reducing negative interactions with people. At one time, there were less than 200 grizzly bears in Yellowstone. Now, as a result of a successful recovery effort, 709 grizzly bears call the Greater Yellowstone home. At the same time, the communities around Yellowstone are more than keeping pace and are some of the fastest growing counties in the state.
As we share a more crowded landscape, interactions take many forms. They can take the form of surprise encounters between a bear and hunter or recreationist; food-conditioned bears that have obtained unsecured trash and threaten human safety as the bears become bolder and break into cars or enter homes; or when livestock become an easy food source for the bear. We have the new challenge of wanting to stay safe in the outdoors while supporting wildlife diversity.
There are a few practices you can start to reduce the chance of a negative encounter with a bear. Be aware of your surroundings as you recreate, don’t investigate a carcass, hike in groups of three or more, and carry bear spray and know how to use it.
To learn more about bears and the actions you can take to reduce human conflicts with bears, follow Bernadette Bear on social media @bearsmartbigsky. Help support Bernadette in her campaign to create a more bear-safe and bear-aware community in Big Sky.
Kris Inman is the community partnerships coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society and oversees the Bear Smart Big Sky campaign.