Keeping Up with the Bears: Our 2021 Conservation Partners

Young Grizzly Crossing Trail
As grizzly bears expand from core recovery areas onto more of their historic range in the Northern Rockies, they are crossing paths with people more often. Many conservation partners are working hard across the region to prevent conflicts and spread coexistence practices so bears and people can share the landscape safely.

Coexistence Work Helps Grizzlies and People Share Landscapes

Grizzly bears are not stationary creatures. With a range that historically stretched from the Pacific Coast across the Great Plains, bears evolved to thrive on many landscapes. Individual grizzlies will traverse habitats from mountain ridgelines to river valleys to prairie grasslands—as long as roadblocks don’t get in the way.

As their recovery from near-extinction in the Lower 48 states continues, grizzlies are gradually returning to more of their historic range. In 2021 alone, sightings have been confirmed in parts of central Idaho, southwestern Wyoming and the central Montana prairie that haven’t seen grizzlies in many decades.

One Landscape conflict prevention priorities
Vital Ground’s One Landscape Initiative includes priority areas for coexistence partnerships that prevent conflicts between bears and people. In 2021, 13 of our 16 partners work in these priority areas.

These new habitat frontiers include a wider variety of human land ownership and usages than the species’ core recovery zones in protected wilderness areas and national parks. As bears cross agricultural lands and pass near communities, coexistence practices are essential to their safety and our own, as well as to larger conservation goals for the species.

Vital Ground supports numerous coexistence partners as a complement to our work directly conserving habitat for grizzlies and other wildlife. From electric fencing to educational events, our partners are performing crucial work on the ground and in communities. By preventing bear-related conflicts in our One Landscape Initiative’s identified priority areas, these partnerships help grizzlies expand and reconnect their fragmented range in the Northern Rockies, a key part of ensuring a durable future for the Great Bear in the Lower 48. We’re excited to announce our 16 conservation partners for 2021!

Preventing Conflicts on the Prairie

In greater numbers and at greater distances, grizzly bears are leaving Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front Range and following the high-quality habitat of its river corridors that wind east onto the state’s central prairies. They are traversing farms, ranches and communities in the process, making coexistence efforts vital to bear and human safety as well as the broader social attitudes surrounding grizzlies in the state.

Across central Montana, our partners are hard at work: In Blackfeet country east of Glacier National Park, the Blackfeet Nation Stock Growers Association is adding electric fencing to their 4H livestock program, the Piikani Lodge Health Institute retired a grazing allotment in a wildlife-heavy area and the Conservation Science Collaborative works with tribal students to study conflicts on Blackfeet ranches.

Farther south, the Western Landowners Alliance will hold a conflict reduction workshop for Rocky Mountain Front agricultural communities adapting to grizzlies. Meanwhile, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is equipping a new central Montana bear manager to respond to grizzly-related incidents and provide resources to landowners to prevent future conflicts.

Balancing New Growth in Northwestern Montana

West of Glacier National Park, Montana’s Flathead Valley is one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions. As new houses and roads sprout forth, remaining habitat needs protection while residents and visitors both new and old need to be ready to coexist with a grizzly bear population that is also growing.

Black bear and cherry orchard fence
Electric fencing keeps a black bear sow and cub out of a cherry orchard near Montana’s Flathead Lake. (Photo courtesy of People & Carnivores)

Our partners at People and Carnivores are working across the Flathead region to provide electric fencing for farms, fruit orchards and more, while the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will hold an educational cider-pressing and fruit-gleaning event to help landowners learn how to secure their fruit trees and other common attractants. With protecting habitat a key part of mitigating bear conflicts in this rapidly-developing area, we’re also proud to join Flathead Land Trust’s crucial effort to purchase 772 acres of habitat between the Swan and Whitefish Ranges and transfer this vital connectivity zone into a State Wildlife Management Area benefitting bears, migratory birds and countless other species.

Farther south down the Swan Range, the scenic Swan Valley has long served as an important grizzly crossroads. The Clearwater Resource Council will continue to improve the valley’s coexistence efforts this year with new bear-resistant sanitation facilities for the community of Seeley Lake. Meanwhile to the north and west, other crossroads communities in the Montana-Idaho-British Columbia border region will see their coexistence work improved with an expanded electric fencing cost-share program provided by the Trans-border Grizzly Bear Project.

Building Safer Connections to the Bitterroot and Yellowstone

Part of a sprawling network of public wildlands, biologists predict that the Bitterroot Mountains along the Montana-Idaho border could serve as a primary route for the eventual co-mingling of grizzlies from northwestern Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. With recent sightings confirmed in the Bitterroot Valley and farther south into Idaho, this southward expansion has begun, but numerous human-related obstacles make it far from a free-flowing option for bears.

In the Bitterroot Valley, coexistence efforts are ramping up thanks to partners like the Wind River Bear Institute, who provide bear-aware consulting for landowners and a traveling team of guardian dogs to help haze away bears who are getting too close to property. Our longtime partners at the Great Bear Foundation have also expanded their coexistence work into the Bitterroot, bringing their fruit pickup program to the valley in addition to the Missoula and Ninemile areas.

East of the Bitterroots, other narrower pathways also carry the potential to connect northwestern Montana’s bears with Yellowstone’s. As bears expand from both core areas, the mountain ranges, valleys and agricultural lands of southwestern Montana are crucial zones for conflict prevention.

Cattle with mountain background
Where grizzly range and livestock grazing overlap, carcass pickup and composting programs help remove a major bear attractant.

In the Deer Lodge Valley, the Watershed Restoration Coalition will establish a new composting facility for livestock carcasses, a common bear attractant when left on the landscape. Continuing south, the Big Hole Watershed Committee is expanding the reach of its carcass removal program, and on the doorstep to Yellowstone, the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group is growing its coexistence impact with continued carcass pickups and a new composting facility near Norris, Montana.

Finally, just like bears, coexistence doesn’t have to be a stationary endeavor, and we’re proud to once again support Be Bear Aware’s traveling outreach work. From the Rocky Mountain Front to the Bitterroot Valley and northern Idaho, their educational trailer brings crucial information and resources to residents and visitors throughout grizzly country, with a heightened focus for 2021 on supporting agricultural communities and popular recreation campgrounds.

Whether it’s a new electric fence or bear-resistant garbage bin, an informational brochure or a helping hand securing attractants, the crucial work of sharing the landscape with grizzlies moves forward thanks to the collaborative efforts of wildlife agencies, nonprofit partners and conservation-minded supporters far and wide. As grizzlies continue to reclaim range, protecting habitat corridors and building the social habitat of coexistence go hand-in-hand. We all have important parts to play in building a safer, more sustainable future for wildlife and people.

Learn more about other Vital Ground partners…

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