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The future of grizzlies comes down to the choices we make

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Painting of a Greater Yellowstone grizzly by Red Lodge artist John Potter. Image used with permission. Visit johnpotterstudio.com to check out more of his work.

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

The confirmed sighting in October of a grizzly in the lower reaches of Bear Canyon just southeast of Bozeman is yet another reminder of how close the big bruins are now living near people—in this case within the exurban outskirts of the fastest-growing micropolitan city in America.  

Not only is that considered extraordinary for Westerners entering the third decade of this new millennium, but such a happening was believed unthinkable 45 years ago when the Greater Yellowstone population of grizzlies was given federal protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

For decades, the only grizzlies that came close to busy four-lane Interstate 90 connecting Bozeman with Livingston over Bozeman Pass were captive bears residing at a roadside zoo. 

But in mid-October, bow hunter Dash Rodman was sitting in a tree when he saw what he believed to be a grizzly strolling beneath his perch high above the ground along the riparian corridor of Bear Creek. Later, Bear Canyon resident Renee Thill posted a short video of the bruin by Rodman and a photo of a paw print in the snow.

Called to investigate, Kevin Frey, a longtime bear management specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, paid a visit to Bear Canyon on Sunday Oct. 18, finding a strand of ursid hair on a fence but no tracks in the mud. Still, upon reviewing Rodman’s film, he said, “Yes, definitely a grizzly; it looked to be a subadult. The thing is that if the archery hunter hadn’t been there when the bear passed through, the world probably would never have known the bear had come down the creek corridor and then probably went back up into the mountains.”

While not surprising to Frey, the sighting created a sensation of speculation on social media. Bear Canyon is a drainage with a road that dead ends and along the way are homes and two busy trailheads leading across state lands and the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Indeed, this place-name lives up to its moniker. 

Seeing a grizzly only a few miles, as the crow flies, from Bozeman’s Main Street is a big deal even for old-timers. But Frey says grizzlies, in fact, have been wandering the northern front face of the Gallatin Range where it meets the Gallatin Valley for a few years and most people are unaware. 

Many bruin navigations have largely happened without incident because the grizzlies have done a good job of avoiding people, Frey says, though he is concerned that close and potentially dangerous encounters could occur as more outdoor recreationists pour into the Gallatins, venturing off established trails and increasing the likelihood of bumping into a bear.

“As far as bears go, I call it a waltz,” Frey said. “They are dancing in a forest full of obstacles and people sometimes behaving like chickens with their heads cut off. The bears are doing their best to avoid us. They are not seeking trouble,” Frey says, noting that it’s human behavior that will determine if bears have a future there.

Frey is amazed at how growth in the human population of Bozeman and greater Gallatin Valley is quickly affecting (negatively) how wildlife are using landscapes and how they might—or might not—move through them in the future.  

Frey says there’s no doubt in his mind that the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population is healthy and has met criteria that determines whether it is biologically recovered. He believes the population can be delisted. 

From a population that dipped to around 130 grizzlies or fewer in this entire massive ecosystem, equal in size to New England, and with bears mostly clustered 50 years ago only in Yellowstone Park, the regional population today is more than 700. Recovery has happened only because humans changed their lethal behavior and made habitat protection a priority. 

While indeed bears are showing up in places where they haven’t been in a century or more, they’re paradoxically facing shrinking and more fragmented habitat from more development and rises in recreation users, he said.

Bear Canyon represents kind of a microcosm for pondering the challenges of human-wildlife coexistence in Greater Yellowstone, he notes, and thinking about what wildness is. Lots of weedy, highly adaptable species, such as white-tailed deer, coyotes and maybe half-tamed elk and moose can navigate the wildland-urban interface, but having grizzlies is a test of human smarts and responsibility. 

Given the inundation of COVID-19 refugees and transplants occurring in Bozeman, as expressed in a recent Washington Post story, it’s clear that many in the drove, drawn to what they perceive to be paradise, have little wherewithal when it comes to coexisting with a rare caliber of wildness far beyond anything they had previously known. 

Irrational fear about bears and other carnivores like mountain lions is what historically led to a lack of human tolerance for those species and eventually left them rubbed out of the landscape. Can they learn to be “bear wise?” Will even local Bozemanians and residents of Big Sky realize the miracle that it is to have grizzlies present in the city’s public lands backyard? Time will tell, Frey says.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He’s also the author of the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399.

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