Protecting Social Habitat for Bears

Photo: Kayla Heinze
From recreationists to agricultural producers, making our landscapes and communities safer for people and bears alike requires new, sometimes uncomfortable, approaches.

By Kayla Heinze, Communications and Outreach Coordinator 

Layered onto the diverse landscapes that grizzlies call home is another, equally variable ecosystem: the human one. As bears begin to exit their winter dens in search of food and mates, be it in sprawling sagebrush steppes, high-elevation whitebark pine stands, or willow-lined waterways, their success is determined by the availability of social habitat—the tolerance and attitudes that enable coexistence and ensure bears remain on the landscape—as much as physical habitat. 

As a collective, we humans wield immense influence over the fates of our fellow creatures. With management plans, policies, attractants, media representation, infrastructure and more, we engineer the world that wild animals inhabit in ways that both help and hinder them. For the grizzly’s still-recovering populations in the Lower 48, social habitat is a significant factor shaping their trajectory. A charismatic and high-profile species, they inspire divisive and passionate opinions. The real and perceived threats they pose to ways of life in the Mountain West, be it recreation or ranching, means they are not always safe and welcomed even in places plentiful enough to sustain them.

Map of grizzly bear current and historic rangesIntolerance towards grizzlies and other wildlife has had vast historical consequences. The fear and anti-predator sentiments of early European settlers in the West drove the persecution of animals like bears and wolves that had long coexisted with Native tribes. In conjunction with the development of farms, towns, railroads and highways that ate away at large swathes of their habitat, 20th-century antagonism nearly extirpated grizzlies south of the Canadian border. 

The counter-tide of modern conservation practices, in conjunction with the recognition of ancient kinship ethics, has brought grizzlies back from the brink. But just like we must continuously protect and steward physical habitat, supporting social habitat for wildlife is an ongoing effort. With this year’s warm and dry winter and changing climate patterns ahead, we will likely see longer active seasons for bears and unstable availability of various natural food sources, creating more chances for conflicts and, in turn, fertile breeding grounds for anti-bear sentiments.

Coming Together for Coexistence

Tree planting at Alvord Lake
Vital Ground staff and community volunteers meet with Montana Conservation Corps to steward grizzly habitat in northwestern Montana.

Just like the protection of open spaces, we can all contribute to creating and sustaining social habitat for grizzlies. With ongoing reintroduction proposals in both the Bitterroot and North Cascades ecosystems, you can make your voice heard for wildlife. Our partnerships across grizzly country to proactively prevent conflicts are another crucial piece of the conservation puzzle. By making it easier for people to share the landscape with bears safely, conflict-prevention and outreach work expands social habitat for grizzlies. 

As a recent study on Montanans’ attitudes toward bears showcased, experiencing property damage caused by grizzlies or hearing about it from others can, understandably, increase negative attitudes toward the species. The study also explained how our social dynamics of “in” and “out” groups reinforce our beliefs about wildlife. For example, hunters in the state, who are more likely than non-hunters to have face-to-face interactions with grizzlies, tend to be less afraid of bears but also more likely to hear about negative encounters and property damage. The attitudes of non-hunters surveyed were less swayed by these stories of property damage, likely because they typically came from “out” group members who are less likely to encounter bears. The authors of the study warned that this pattern of belief reinforcement and the tendency to dismiss differing opinions and experiences could amplify polarization in our conversations around wildlife. 

The study confirmed that increases in conflicts with bears tend to prompt decreases in social tolerance, but it also highlighted that, overall, Montanans have positive attitudes towards wildlife. Leaning into our shared values, mutual interest in open space economies and collaborative efforts to make our towns and landscapes more bear-safe will help us build stronger communities of coexistence, both with wildlife and each other. 

Meeting and working face-to-face across cultural divides can go a long way. “Work by conservationists and ranchers in Europe to install bear-resistant fencing built trust among participants, promoted a shared sense of responsibility, and fostered understanding among previously polarized in-group and out-group members,” wrote the study’s authors.

Coexistence tools and educational efforts to preserve social habitat will continue to be as important as our land conservation projects. Stay tuned for the launch of our Bear Safety Hub later this month as part of Bear Aware Week to learn more about how you can contribute to making our shared spaces safer for all!

Learn more about Vital Ground’s coexistence partnerships…

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