Grizzly bears were once numerous, ranging across North America from California to the Great Plains, and from Mexico all the way up into Alaska. As with many species, westward expansion, human transformation of the landscape, and fear led to near-eradication of grizzly bears in the continental United States. When the grizzly bear was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1975, the grizzly bear population in the lower 48 states was down to less than 1000 bears. Grizzly bears still occupy less than 2% of their former range, in 5 of 6 grizzly bear recovery areas:
The ESA has given grizzly bears much needed protections and numbers in some populations have increased substantially, while bears continue to expand into historic habitat. Recognizing that human-bear conflicts were a leading cause of human-related grizzly bear deaths, Defenders initiated our grizzly bear conflict mitigation, or coexistence, program in the late 1990s. It is imperative to recovery that we save the lives of grizzly bears, but it is also critical that we address the concerns of residents that live and work around them, making safer spaces for both bears and people.
Human-caused mortalities remain a primary cause of grizzly bear death in the lower 48 states. Many of these deaths are due to the availability of what are called “anthropogenic attractants,” things like garbage, coolers, fruit trees, livestock and pet feed, chickens, and other livestock. Their nose leads the way — a grizzly’s remarkable sense of smell helps them find enough food to put on the fat necessary to hibernate for 4–6 months every winter. While those “foods” might provide needed calories and fat, human-related attractants are not good for bears. Such attractants lure bears into trouble. Bears that get into garbage or kill chickens are either relocated or killed, sometimes by the landowner. Bears navigating neighborhoods bordering wildlife habitat, are also more likely to be hit by cars and trains. In a landscape with ever increasing development, it is getting harder and harder for bears to avoid getting into conflicts with people. However, human-bear conflicts are preventable!
Since 1998, we have invested over $750,000 on projects in the lower 48 that prevent conflicts between bears and people. These projects involve diverse collaborations with local residents, state, federal and tribal agencies, and conservation organizations. Our program is applicable in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming and our projects are diverse, ranging from assisting with securing waste transfer sites in communities to electric fencing to range rider programs.
Our efforts are paying off, and in some areas, like the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems grizzly bear populations are expanding into historically occupied places, like prairie habitat. However, these landscapes have vastly changed since grizzly bears were here almost a century ago. This presents challenges as grizzlies move into these areas that are predominately private and agricultural lands. Agricultural and range lands can provide open spaces and habitat for grizzly bears and other species, but they can also be significant sources of conflict, particularly related to livestock.
To restore connectivity among isolated populations, grizzly bears will need to be able to use and travel across these large landscapes. That means we need to find a way forward that recognizes and addresses concerns from those living and relying on these working lands, while minimizing grizzly bear mortality. Opening the door to diverse partnerships to address these issues allows for improved communication between all parties and gives us the ability to develop projects that work for both people and bears.
In 2018, our Rockies and Plains office:
- purchased 140 cans of bear spray for distribution through Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks grizzly bear outreach program to local hunters and residents. Bear spray has proven effective at stopping grizzly bear attacks.
- cost-shared on four range rider programs in Montana, benefiting both wolves and grizzly bears. A primary goal of these landowner-led range rider programs is to minimize livestock lost to grizzly bears and wolves by increasing human presence.
- partnered with Montana Wildlife Services and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to support Montana Wildlife Services’ first ever non-lethal technician.
- completed 43 grizzly bear electric fencing projects through our popular grizzly bear electric fencing incentive program.
Defenders of Wildlife’s Electric Fencing Incentive Program
Defenders works directly with local residents, non-profit organizations, small businesses, and government agencies on a wide variety of electric fence projects, primarily on private lands. We see tremendous conservation value in providing financial support and technical expertise to build electric fence systems that effectively deter grizzly bears and other carnivores from accessing anthropogenic attractants. This program is designed to be proactive in preventing conflicts, though we give priority to landowners with past bear conflicts. We are seeing a direct reduction in human-bear conflicts and other wildlife conflicts at these sites where fences are completed and maintained. Initially, this program reimbursed landowners $100 towards an electric fence around an identified grizzly bear attractant. We found this amount insufficient for cost-sharing with residents in building high quality fence systems. In 2012, we improved the program to reimburse residents within priority counties 50 percent of the cost of electric fencing around any grizzly bear attractant, up to a maximum incentive of $500 per landowner.
The program has completed a combined 347 fencing projects since its inception in 2010. The 2018 field season yielded 41 completed electric fence projects and our 2018 participants were really grateful to be part of the program:
“Thank you so much for helping me to make the electric fencing around my chicken yard a reality…I just wanted to thank you and to let you know your work matters.”
“I received the check from Defenders. I believe this support of landowners who might be directly impacted by grizzly bears is an important part of keeping bears out of trouble. Thank you for your work. I also want to pass on compliments from our bee club members concerning your presentation on bear fences and bear behavior.”
“I think the program is great regardless of the cost sharing component. Just getting good information out there is what we really appreciated.”
In addition to our partnerships with other NGOs and communities, our program continues to foster ongoing collaboration with state and tribal wildlife management agencies on many of these projects. One of the landmark aspects of 2018 was that it marked the first year we were able to partner directly with Montana Wildlife Services, supporting their new conflict prevention technician position that focuses exclusively on implementing non-lethal tools on the ground. Together we completed six large-scale electric fence projects with commercial livestock operators and apiarists. We are also excited to be reaching out to new locations, like Northeastern Washington. The program will continue in 2019, with popularity and reach of the program continuing to grow each year!
Washington state isn’t the first (or second, or third…) place that people would think to find grizzly bears, and for good reason. Even though the state has two of the six grizzly bear populations in the lower 48, both populations are very small and endangered. The Selkirk Mountains in the northeast are home to an estimated 70–80 grizzly bears (and most of them are on the Canadian side of the ecosystem). In the North Cascades, there may only be as few as 10 grizzlies left, and because this ecosystem is so isolated from other grizzly populations, the only way to recover grizzlies in the Cascades is to bring additional bears into Washington.
With such small populations, there have been almost no human-grizzly conflicts in Washington for the last several decades. That doesn’t mean we aren’t working on coexistence, though! Our Northwest office has the advantage of learning from the great work done by our colleagues in the Rockies and Plains to prevent grizzly bear conflicts before they even begin. These proactive steps can help increase tolerance for grizzly bears in Washington as both populations recover over time.
In the Selkirks, biologists are seeing grizzly bears more often in the Washington portion of the mountain range. As they venture further south and west, it’s important to keep bears out of campsites and dumpsites. To keep them from getting habituated with these sites, often resulting in euthanasia, Defenders purchased food storage lockers for the U.S. Forest Service to install at campgrounds. We also helped fence a waste transfer site to keep bears and other wildlife out of dumpsters.
One of the most important things for people who live and work in grizzly country to do is carry bear spray. This non-lethal tool helps keep people safe and bears alive. In partnership with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Kalispel Natural Resources Department, and Washington State University, we hosted eight bear awareness trainings for community groups and school kids living in the region. At each training, we covered bear awareness tips and practiced using bear spray — we used an inert can for practice, but everyone who attended the training got a free can of bear spray!
Hiking is a popular Washington activity no matter what side of the state you live on, but people entering the North Cascades don’t think about grizzly bears as much as they do when the venture into the Selkirks. That’s why we partnered with the Washington Trails Association and the Mountaineers this last year to host fun and informal events up and down the I-5 Corridor. Setting up at local breweries and libraries, we talked to outdoor enthusiasts from Tacoma to Everett about our PlaySmart tips. We even demonstrated these tips in the field on a backpacking trip with a group from Latino Outdoors. With so many people recreating in the North Cascades, it’s important that everyone learns how to play smart and avoid conflicts with bears.
In 2018, our Northwest office invested over $20,000 for grizzly bear coexistence projects in Washington state, including:
- Conducting eight bear awareness training sessions reaching approximately 250 individuals in the Selkirks, distributing a free can of bear spray to attendees.
- Purchasing five food storage lockers for campgrounds in the Colville National Forest.
- Assisting with fully fencing the Usk Waste Transfer Station.
- Hosting nearly a dozen PlaySmart presentations in Western Washington (includes Hikes, Bears, and Brews).
Defenders is dedicated to grizzly bear recovery in the lower 48 states. Our investments are paying off, but there is still so much work to do. Our job is far from over, and it will continue to take hard work, funding, and cooperation to ensure the vision of a resilient, interconnected grizzly bear population in the future. We want to thank all our many supporters and partners — grizzly bears would not be where they are today without an enormous amount of effort by all involved.