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As Grizzly Conflicts Increase, Education Group Helps People Be Prepared

Grizzly bear track on a trail in Yellowstone National Park.
Public Domain
Grizzly bear track on a trail in Yellowstone National Park.

Conflicts between grizzly bears and humans in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are on the rise as more bears return to their historic range. The Montana Bear Education Working Group is trying to teach people how to reduce encounters and stay safe.

Danielle Oyler moves her remote control bear into position at a community event in Manhattan Saturday. A local resident stands across from the chest-high black bear cut-out with a bear spray canister dangling from her hip holster.

The remote control bear moves at 25 miles per hour, a little more than half the speed of a charging grizzly bear. The woman sprays the bear before it hits the foam barrier.

A woman sprays the Montana Bear Education Working Group's remote control charging bear.
Credit Danielle Oyler/Montana Bear Education Working Group
A woman sprays the Montana Bear Education Working Group's remote control charging bear.

“Even at this speed, it’s a real wake-up call for people — just to have their bear spray really handy and also to get comfortable ... with the actual bear spray [and] the idea of being in a bear encounter and what they should be doing in that moment so knowing their plan, knowing how read bear behavior, knowing how to assess and react,” says Oyler.

Oyler is an education coordinator for the Montana Bear Education Working Group, which includes several state and federal agencies and some non-profit organizations. They work to reduce bear-human conflict and increase social tolerance for bruins. Her group trained over 20,000 people last year.

“We’re seeing more conflicts because there are more bears and more people,” Oyler says.

Grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have increased from around 150 in the 1970s to 700 today. Montana’s GYE had over 100 grizzly bear conflicts last year and a record high number of human-caused bear deaths. Most of the conflicts were with livestock or property. Twelve were human encounters.

“The bears are moving into new areas where people aren’t used to living with them. So rather than being reactionary and trying to respond to all of the conflicts that may occur, we’re trying to get ahead of it and talk to people about what they can do to be safe in bear country so they have those tools and know what to expect,” Oyler says.

At home, Oyler suggests bear resistant dumpsters and fruit tree gleaning. Out on trails, she says be aware of your surroundings, make noise, travel in groups and, of course, carry bear spray. Research shows bear spray is the most effective way to stop a charging bear. Oyler hopes more people will know how to use it with events like the one in Manhattan.

Upcoming Montana Bear Education Working Group Public Events

May 15 - Bear safety presentation for Anaconda Sportsman's Club, Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall, Anaconda at 1:00 pm

May 16 - Bear presentation for Mile High Backcountry Horsemen, Comfort Inn, 2777 Harrison Ave, Butte at 6:30 pm

May 18 - Bear Aware table at Caddis Festival, Craig from 4-7:00 pm

May 19 - Bear safety presentation followed by bear spray practice with remote-controlled charging bear at Sage Lodge in Paradise Valley, Pray at 4:00 pm

May 23 - Bear Aware Open House, Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor's Office, Hamilton from 1-6:00 pm

May 25 - Bear Aware trailer with charging bear demonstrations, Murdoch's Ranch and Home Supply Livingston (time TBD)