How a grizzly bear attack in Big Sky reflects the health of a species
By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor
Grizzly killed in Big Sky
At 7:30 on Friday morning, Bob Olson was still in his pajamas. He’d just finished eating eggs and bacon in his cabin in Big Sky, when he heard his three king shepherds barking outside, making horrible screaming noises.
“I knew the dogs were being attacked but I didn’t know by what,” Olson said. “I knew something was totally wrong.”
He looked out the window into his yard, which abuts Ousel Falls Park, but trees and the outhouse blocked his view. Olson, 53, grabbed his .300 Weatherby Magnum and ran outside in his flip flops. There, he saw his dogs fighting a 350-pound grizzly bear.
“It was attacking them, and when I ran out into the middle of the yard, it came at me,” he said.
He jacked a round into the chamber and shot the bear at five yards. Struck in the head, it stopped charging, then spun around a couple of times. Olson shot again, and the bear fell, landing right by Olson’s feet.
“I was just reacting,” he said. “I killed it because I thought it was going to kill me.”
Shaken, Olson walked up to the dying animal. It had an ear tag, and had clearly been wearing a collar at some point, because its fur was matted around its neck. With grizzlies listed as an endangered species, Olson knew he needed to report the incident immediately. He called 911.
The sheriff responded first, then two wardens from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and two biologists. They took notes on the scene, identified the animal as a 6-year-old male from the Taylor Fork area south of Big Sky, and then moved it into a truck and transported it to the FWP lab in Bozeman. The biologists and wardens returned, trying to determine where and why the bear entered Olson’s yard.
“The food and stuff in that yard … it was the smell that potentially brought the bear in there,” said FWP bear biologist Kevin Frey. Olson said he doesn’t leave garbage or dog food in the yard.
Frey denies rumors this was a problem bear relocated from elsewhere. “We’re the only ones that move bears, and in 20 years we’ve maybe put two bears in Taylor Fork.”
The Taylor Fork – and by extension, Big Sky – is “core habitat associated with Yellowstone National Park,” Frey said.
While female grizzlies have roughly 20-square mile home ranges, males can utilize 90 to 300 square miles in a season. As part of his normal range, this one just happened to drift north in the spring.
When Olson killed the bear, on May 25, 2012, grizzlies were still protected by the Endangered Species Act. But some, including Wyoming governor Matt Mead and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, say the animals have recovered and are calling for them to be delisted.
Human-grizzly conflicts on the rise
In 1983, two armed robbers entered his business and threatened his life with a 25-caliber pistol. When Olson turned to escape, he was shot in the arm. Having a grizzly bear charge him was “the same type of feeling,” he said.
Olson carries a concealed weapons permit. He and his staff train in self-defense, and also alongside Milwaukee law enforcement for mock holdups. When the bear was charging, that training kicked in.
His dogs, 75-pound king shepherds, are part of his security system. Also beloved pets, Weatherby, 7, is the oldest; Cameron, the black one, is 5; and Hatch, with blond fur, is 4 years old.
A six-foot wooden jack-rail fence surrounds their kennel, which backs up to the cabin porch. The fence rails are about five inches apart, “so nothing can get into the kennel, and my dogs can’t get out,” Olson says.
There’s also a shed where the dogs eat in the kennel area, and where they sleep at night. He’d already let them out that morning, and they were hanging out on the porch before the bear climbed over the fence.
The tussle with the bear left Hatch with a scratch on his nose, but otherwise the dogs came out all right.
Olson thought there would be backlash from the community, but in the following weeks, half a dozen Big Sky residents stopped by his place, all with kind words.
“Everyone was so supportive,” he said. “[They were] happy I killed that bear because it probably would have killed somebody at Ousel Falls… This was self defense, and I’m sorry this bear had to die.”
Ultimately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deemed it a legal self-defense killing.
Grizzlies are abundant south of Big Sky, and according to Frey, they also live in lower numbers to the north, on both sides of the Gallatin River. The actual population is impossible to determine, but depending on the season and available food sources, at least 10 to 25 are present in Gallatin Canyon proper.
In the past 20 years, nine incidents involving grizzly bears have led to human contact or injury in the greater Big Sky/Gallatin Canyon area. These include a mauling on the Ousel Falls Trail in 1997; an attack near the Deer Creek Trailhead in 2010; and four hunting-related incidents.
Overall, the number of grizzly-human conflicts in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is on the rise, said Yellowstone National Park bear biologist Kerry Gunther. 2012 was relatively quiet compared to the four years prior.
“It’s like the stock market,” Gunther said. “There are peaks and valleys, but the general trend is slightly upward.” This, he explained, is because bears are expanding into areas they haven’t been for more than 100 years. People at the leading edge of this generally aren’t accustomed to living with bears.
In 2011, 229 conflicts were reported in the Greater Yellowstone. Of those, 15 people were injured by grizzly bears in 14 incidents. These included the first two deaths in Yellowstone National Park in 25 years.
A species recovered?
In the year 1800, an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears lived in the lower 48.
But a late 19th century U.S. government predator extermination program, combined with the ensuing century of human expansion, sent the population into a nosedive. A public grizzly bear hunting season in the Yellowstone Ecosystem compounded things, and by the time they acquired federal protection in 1975, there were fewer than 300.
“They were hit hard from a lot of directions,” said biologist Steve Gehman, co-founder of Wild Things Unlimited in Bozeman, a nonprofit dedicated to improving wildlife and habitat management in the Rocky Mountains.
The closure of the dumps in Yellowstone Park and its gateway communities between 1968 and 1979 severely impacted bear numbers. Conditioned to eating human foods and garbage, the animals spread out in search of other food sources, causing conflict and property damage. Many were killed by government agencies and property owners.
“It took 25 to 30 years for [the population] to recover to the point where all suitable grizzly bear habitat in the park was again occupied by grizzlies,” Gehman said.
Gehman has been studying grizzly bears since the mid-1980s, particularly the animals’ movement northward from Yellowstone into the Gallatin Range. Around the year 2000, he says, they began moving into areas of former habitat like the Wind River Range, the Shoshone National Forest, and the Gallatin and Madison ranges.
“Bears are good at finding food and available habitat,” he said. “It seems to start with young males that are curious and looking for a place to live.”
In the entire 19 million acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, biologists estimate the grizzly population is around 600; however, Frey says ongoing research may find that number is actually higher. In the larger region – the Greater Yellowstone, combined with the northern Continental Divide, Glacier National Park, plus scattered areas in Idaho and northwest Montana – there may be upwards of 1,500.
These are “pretty good levels,” Gehman said. “But if you look at population biology genetics and what it takes to have a genetically viable population in the long term – which to me is the definition of recovery – we need probably around 2,000 in the Montana-Idaho-Wyoming area, and that population needs to be connected.”
Gehman and other biologists promote the idea of wildlife corridors – areas of interconnected habitat that allow isolated populations to make contact, increasing genetic diversity in the region.
“It’s not so much that bears are walking back and forth, or that one individual bear is going to make that trip,” Gehman said. “It’s more a stepping stone approach – young bears make their way along that line, then a female makes her way, then her offspring go that way, and eventually an animal from one ecosystem enters another ecosystem.”
Full recovery, he says, would include the 4 million-acre Salmon-Selway Ecosystem in central Idaho, a place that currently has no grizzlies but could likely support hundreds.
Endangered Species Act
In March 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed Yellowstone grizzly bears from the Endangered Species list.
Environmental groups led by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition filed suit in federal district court, alleging the delisting plan failed to address issues like the possible effects of climate change on whitebark pine, a primary food source for grizzlies. In September 2009, the district court reversed the delisting.
The case went next to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which in November 2011 upheld the district court’s ruling. Today the Yellowstone grizzly is again listed as “threatened,” and its natural food sources are being studied.
Yellowstone grizzlies have long used whitebark pine seeds as a food source in the fall, before hibernation. During years with poor cone production, bears switch to other foods including ungulate meat, truffles and roots.
Mountain pine beetle outbreaks and invasive blister rust have devastated a portion of the whitebark stands throughout the Greater Yellowstone in the past decade. Despite this, Gunther says there still appears to be ample whitebark pine seeds, pointing toward high cone production in 2012.
“[This] resulted in grizzly bears feeding heavily on whitebark, which resulted in very few grizzly-human conflicts in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem this year.”
Yellowstone cutthroat trout were also once a staple for grizzlies. Those, too, have seen a decline, and bears that previously fished for cutthroat have switched to preying on elk calves during the spring, Gunther said.
Louisa Willcox is a wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingston. She fought the 2007 proposal and says there will likely be another delisting discussion soon, once the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with other federal and state agencies has addressed the court’s questions.
“There is a lot of pressure coming from states,” Willcox said. “Wyoming, Idaho and Montana are all very desirous of bears getting delisted because they want control.”
She agrees removal from the endangered species list is the ultimate goal, but says it’s not the time to take chances.
“Now is the time to be looking at alternative bear foods. What are bears eating now, where are those foods in relationship to where people are? How secure is that habitat? … [How could] climate change affect secondary and tertiary foods?”
Management: A balancing act
Grizzly bear management is more a social issue than a biological one.
While public support for bears in the Greater Yellowstone area is widespread, some believe it’s time to crack down on growth. Ask Olson:
“These things are everywhere. They’re not fearful of man, nobody hunts them … Now humans and the bear population are clashing. We’ve expanded, they’ve expanded. That’s why we’re having these issues.”
Olson’s friend Jerry Andres has owned Andres Taxidermy in Belgrade for 27 years, and he can remember the last hunting season for grizzly bears. Andres says it wasn’t a mistake to bring the population back, but it’s now at a tipping point.
“Hunters tell me they’re bumping into bears more and more every year. Everybody thinks there should be a [hunting] season… The population is probably as high as it can get without spilling into residential areas.”
A hunting season would impact the population, Gehman said, especially in places where bears are trying to move into new habitats or expand their range. He’s wary of two things: “Direct killing of bears preventing movements between ecosystems, and degradation of habitat because of tighter restrictions being removed in certain areas.”
For wildlife officials managing bear populations, walking this line is critical.
Tim Bennett is the Northern Rockies Bear Program Director for Keystone Conservation, a Bozeman-based nonprofit that seeks practical solutions for wildlife conservation.
Bennett says the future of grizzly bear management isn’t bolstering populations or protecting habitat. “That’s the past. The future is reducing their opportunity to come into conflict with humans and increasing human acceptance of having grizzly bears occupying the same habitat.”
Olson says it’s a balancing act.
“We need to protect them, but at the same time we need to protect ourselves… How do man and beast live together without putting people in jeopardy, and without putting bears in jeopardy? We need to get along.”
Living with bears
Surrounded by a public land, Yellowstone and Glacier are some of the last large expanses of grizzly bear habitat in the lower 48. If you live nearby, it’s relatively normal that a bear might walk through your yard.
“[People] have to realize one day it’s a black bear, and the next it could be a grizzly,” said bear biologist Kevin Frey.
The Big Sky Natural Resources Council is working on a Bear Aware initiative to encourage responsible cohabitation.
Efforts have included starting a bear hazard assessment of the Big Sky area, done by the Wildlife Conservation Society, and creating a Bear Aware committee. The committee will help with the assessment, collaborating this winter to find solutions for the related issues, said BSNRC board member Kevin Germain.
“We need to find out what holes exist and how we can fill those, what policies are out there on the books, and what recommended changes we have for the policy makers,” Germain said. Suggestions include implementing bear-resistant trashcans and centralized garbage collection points.
The Bear Aware initiative is based on programming from the Get Bear Smart Society, a Canadian group that helps people and bears “safely and respectfully coexist in places where their homes and home ranges overlap.” Based on education, policy and management, its programming has been effective in mountain towns from Whistler to Tahoe.
Traveling in bear country
Using bear spray
When in bear country, travel with a partner and pay attention for fresh bear sign like tracks, scat and natural foods. Carry bear spray where it’s immediately accessible. An average bear can run 35 miles an hour, so in your backpack won’t do.
If you encounter a bear, don’t run. Stay calm and assess the situation. Is the bear aware of you? Is it threatening or fleeing? Keep the animal in sight as you back away, but don’t make eye contact.
Only use bear spray if a bear is aggressively confronting you. If it’s approaching you and is 30 to 60 feet away, direct the spray downward toward the front of the bear, with a slight side-to-side motion.
“What you’re trying to is build a wall between you and the bear,” said Dave Parker, a representative from Counter Assault, a bear spray manufacturer in Kalispell, Montana.
If the bear is within 30 feet, spray continuously at the front of the bear until it breaks its charge. Spray additional bursts if it continues toward you.
No deterrent is 100 percent effective, but compared to all others, including firearms, bear spray is the most successful at fending off threatening and attacking bears.
Most cans last four years. Beyond their expiration date, they should be replaced. The seals can deteriorate, decreasing the pressure and effectiveness.