Op-ed: Now is a critical time to model smart living in bear country
By Ashea Mills EBS CONTRIBUTOR
Having lived and guided in Yellowstone Park for over 25 years, I feel extremely privileged to share space with bears, and to have helped visitors from around the world safely observe them. I have observed bear populations as they expand into former territories and have watched with growing concern for their safety and ours as Greater Yellowstone sees an increase in both visitation and residents.
“Pay attention and be careful.” That was our mantra, raising a kid in and around Yellowstone, with its steep cliffs, swift moving water, and while living, hiking and camping in bear country. Among the reasons I chose to have a child was the awesomeness of living and guiding in such a vast, open country, one that sustains a healthy bear population. But with this place comes some serious responsibility. You have to know what it means in griz country to “pay attention and be careful”.
Over the years, I’ve learned to make bear protocols a habit. I don’t like to be afraid. That wouldn’t do us or them any good. Like anything with potential for danger—driving down the highway, rock climbing, hiking or living in bear country—practicing smart behavior makes for a much safer, more comfortable experience. As more people are coming to our area to visit or live, now is a critical time for those of us who value living with both black and grizzly bears to model smart living.
Bears are surprisingly predictable once you learn their food sources and once you take the time to learn their behavior. I often imagine the scenario of coming around the corner and being face-to-face with a bear. Of course, I always make noise, sometimes shouting my fool head off. I practice drawing bear spray without fumbling. I keep a very clean camp. I practice in my mind’s eye not running if I do have an encounter.
Every year we hear of bears obtaining animal feed or garbage or breaking into vehicles or garages. These problems are avoidable. If we’re going to live with them, to maintain the wildness they bring to our space, we need to be smarter and more adaptable. That might mean investing in an electric fence, taking out fruit trees, or hanging the bird feeder higher than a bear can reach. It means putting away the grill and securing garbage and livestock feed. These are not hardships, just habits.
To reduce human-bear conflicts, we must have educated hikers, hunters, joggers, climbers, boaters, kids, and we absolutely must reduce attractants. The tradeoff for practicing these good habits is to proudly exclaim, “I live in griz country.” It is to live with the constant reminder that we coexist with a suite of animals who also call this place home. It is to live in one of the wildest places left in the world. That alone is worth it.
To read stories about what some people are doing to safely live in areas with grizzly bears, visit grizzlybearcollective.com/living-with-bears/more-people-more-bears.
Ashea Mills has spent 25 years connecting visitors to Yellowstone’s wild landscape including hiking snowcoach driving, and wildlife watching.