Before European settlement of the North American West, grizzly bears thrived in the Bitterroot ecosystem, located in Idaho and Montana, now one of the biggest connected blocks of federally managed lands in the lower 48 states. Everything changed with a wave of eradication efforts that extirpated grizzlies from the wilderness by the 1930s. Seventy years later, federal agencies issued a proposal which would have paved the way for the bears to return home — but that decision was put on indefinite hold.

Since then, much has changed. More people live, work and recreate in bear country today than ever before. What's more, grizzly bears are gradually returning to historic habitat near the Bitterroot ecosystem. There’s a real, exciting possibility that grizzly bears could reoccupy the wild lands where they belong in our lifetime — if we let them. To be allowed a natural return to the Bitterroot, however, male and female grizzlies face a complex route through a changing landscape.

2024.01.17 - Map of the Bitterroot Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone - USFWS (CC BY 4.0 DEED)
Image Credit

Outside federally-identified recovery zones, grizzly bears travel a patchwork of large private lands and small public ones. They must navigate ranches, agricultural areas, and an increasing number of urban and suburban developments. Along the way comes the potential for conflicts with people, as well as attractive distractions like garbage, fruit trees, livestock, and bird feeders, which can all too easily persuade grizzlies to linger and explore property they probably shouldn’t.

In the case of busy roads, grizzly bears must approach them like a game of “Frogger” — weaving around vehicles as best they can, trying to make it across. On the road or anywhere else, it’s a delicate balancing act to keep the needs of bears intact alongside the needs of people. The solution starts with resources for people, to keep conflicts minimal and everyone safe — people and bears alike.

Compressed 2023.09.23 - NW - Bear-resistant can in Leavenworth, WA - © Joe Bridges/WDFW
Image Credit
Joe Bridges/WDFW

Bear Smart, Bear Safe

Since 2010, Defenders of Wildlife has helped install 665 bear-resistant electric fences as part of its grizzly bear coexistence program, which also invests in bear-resistant garbage cans and other tools that can keep bears out of trouble. Coexistence requires communities, agencies and conservation groups to work together, whether to build fences or implement wildlife crossings.

That same kind of collaboration has brought the city of Missoula, Montana, closer to becoming a Bear Smart Community. Located between the Northern Continental Divide and Bitterroot ecosystems, the community is in a unique position. Grizzly bears, mostly males, have begun to show up around the city, as well as in northern portions of the Bitterroot. For some of those bears, Missoula could be a distraction-filled stop between the two habitats. Because more than 40% of human-bear conflicts around Missoula involve bears (mostly black bears) getting into garbage, Missoula adopted new regulations requiring bear-resistant garbage containers within a “bear buffer zone” around the city.  

2023.08.05 - RMGP - Bitterroot Bear Survey - Bear scratch trail cam series 1 - DOW
Image Credit
Defenders of Wildlife

The regulation’s first phase went into action on April 30 and represents part of a much bigger project for Missoula. Making garbage bear-safe around the city will require a lot of outreach to residents who might not know what to do or why they should do it. Even at its fullest potential, one regulation on trash doesn't address backyard fruit trees, bird feeders, chicken coops or other things that could attract bears. Creating a safe corridor for grizzlies starts with making the Missoula area bear-smart, but also requires making intervening roads and public lands safer for bears and humans alike. The more bear-smart the Missoula area becomes, the more grizzly bears will hopefully avoid temptation and conflict while making their way to the Bitterroot.

In some ways, it would be easier if bear safety was just about the bears — but it’s not. It’s really about people. Each step toward coexistence with grizzly bears means another round of cooperation, conflict prevention, and outreach. Nearly 100 years ago, it was human hands that drove grizzly bears out of the Bitterroot. Programs like those at Defenders and in places like Missoula show that human hands can also help the bears return home. 


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