Conflict or Coexistence? The Future of Bears and People

From Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front to the Idaho Panhandle, the Northern Rockies region is defined by its stunning vertical landscape. Deep river valleys draw human settlement in the shadow of jagged mountains that tower like skyscrapers thousands of feet above.

Meanwhile, back in the steep folds of those ranges moves a mammal that matches its habitat for grandeur. But freedom is not a reality for grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies. The challenges they face in the 21st century—habitat loss and fragmentation, human-related conflicts, and a changing climate—will reveal whether people can ultimately share the land with one of its most majestic native animals.

The Danger of Development

North of Missoula, the Mission Valley provides an agricultural haven for Western Montana. But it is also one of many places in the Northern Rockies where bears and people are struggling to share space. Low in elevation—around 3,000 feet, compared to the 8,000-10,000 foot peaks above—the valley’s rich post-glacial soil yields corn, cherry orchards and good grazing. And every spring and fall, it also attracts grizzlies.

Bears rely on low-elevation habitat in the shoulder seasons, when snow still blankets the high-country and they must find food in anticipation of, or replenishment from, their winter hibernation. When these movements to lower ground lead bears into settled places, their needs for food, water and shelter come into direct conflict with humanity.

The Right Place video screenshot of green trees, fields and mountains with houses.
Video: Vital Ground – The Right Place Campaign

The story of the grizzly’s decline in the West is a story of habitat loss. Before European settlement, the plains and mountains between the Mississippi and the Pacific held room enough for tens of thousands of grizzlies and an Indigenous human population that also numbered in the thousands, not the millions. But as America moved west through the 19th and 20th centuries, towns, railroads, dams and highways shrunk and segmented grizzly country. After thousands of years roaming from fertile plains to high meadows, bears retreated to the mountain strongholds that remained unpeopled, losing all but one or two percent of their historic range, their numbers eventually dwindling to roughly 700 bears split between the island havens of Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.

Thanks to 40 years of conservation, that number is now on the rise. But the West’s human population continues to climb, too. The grizzly’s habitat remains deeply fragmented within the Lower 48, with bear’s rarely crossing from one existing habitat stronghold to another. While the Yellowstone and Glacier grizzly populations have rebounded to relatively healthy numbers, the island populations of Montana’s Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem and Idaho’s Selkirk Ecosystem remain dangerously low, hovering around 50 animals apiece. Their separation from other grizzly subgroups has these bears at risk of genetic isolation. Without improved connectivity to other ecosystems, the bears in these recovery zones will spiral toward inbreeding and eventual extinction.

With every new house and road built on land that was once home to grizzlies, the species’ chance of establishing habitat connections and regaining historic range dwindles. That’s why Vital Ground’s habitat projects carve out room for grizzlies and other wildlife in those critical places where private-land development poses imminent risk. But we must address another concern as well: beyond the physical reality of habitat loss lies the fact that when human and grizzly homelands collide, conflict follows.

Conflicts on the Rise

In the Mission Valley, where fall salmon runs once flooded the Flathead River, grizzly bears have a new favorite food: corn.

For a bear in autumn, with the internal clock ticking toward hibernation, the crop is understandably irresistible. Cornfields at the base of the Mission Mountains provide a quick meal close to undeveloped habitat, and 2017 set a new record for corn lost to grizzlies, according to bear managers from the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, whose reservation includes much of the Mission Valley.

As the grizzly population recovers within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), bears are running out of safeguarded space. They are expanding into new areas, like the Mission Valley and the Salish Mountains farther west, where biologists reported record-high grizzly numbers in 2017. And when they move into more-developed areas, their risk of conflict and death inevitably rises.

Swan Valley Bear video screenshot. Close-up of bear proof garbage bin.
Video: Swan Valley Bear Resources

On the other side of the NCDE, the problem has reached a fever pitch. In the Rocky Mountain Front region of central Montana, more bears are following river valleys out of the mountains and onto developed lands, where they find cattle ranches, wheat farms, and towns full of gardens and trash bins. The result is conflict in record numbers. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks received 81 grizzly-related calls within the region during 2017, confirmed 46 different incidents of livestock or crop damage, and, as a result, 12 human-caused grizzly bear deaths.

The numbers add up to an urgent need for change. If grizzlies are to survive in more than the island sanctuaries of Glacier and Yellowstone, they will inevitably cross developed lands. When they do, they will rely on two things: conflict-prevention technologies like bear spray, electric fencing and bear-resistant garbage containers, and a greater ethos of tolerance. At Vital Ground, we address these needs through community partnerships that actively prevent conflicts between bears and people. As the grizzly’s habitat needs shift during the 21st century, these coexistence efforts will become more important than ever.

The Climate Complication

If increased human development and conflicts don’t make the grizzly’s path to survival a steep enough one, there’s growing evidence that climate change will further complicate the picture.

Beyond its corn wars, the Mission Valley is one of many places seeing grizzlies earlier in the year than ever before. In early April, snow often still covers much of Montana, and most bears remain in hibernation. But in early April of 2017, tribal biologists captured and collared a young female grizzly in the town of St. Ignatius—their earliest such encounter ever.

Across the globe’s temperate regions, a warming climate has meant shorter winters. For grizzlies, that means less time in the den, and more time moving on the land in search of food. A recent study of bears in nearby southern Alberta concluded that a two-degree rise in average monthly maximum temperature—combined with a 20 percent drop in winter precipitation—correlates with grizzlies exiting their dens five days earlier. Most scientists expect these climactic shifts—or even more severe ones—to occur within the next century. They spell hunger for grizzlies.

How bears satisfy that hunger is a tough nut to crack. Climate change will not destroy all of the grizzly’s natural food sources overnight—in fact, the increased wildfire damage associated with higher temperatures may help some bears, as huckleberries and similar plant foods often thrive in recently-burned areas. But other plants will not be so lucky. In particular, a recent model showed significant climate-related habitat loss for sweet vetch, whose roots are one of the earliest natural foods available to grizzlies each spring.

So where will bears turn when spring comes earlier and food is scarce? Too often, the answer is unsecured trash bins, feed grain for livestock, or livestock itself. As omnivores, bears can adapt their diets greatly in order to match what’s available in an area. But when foods are readily available that draw bears close to developed areas, conflict often follows.

That’s why grizzlies need both social and physical habitat. Through our Right Place Campaign and our Conservation Partners Grant Program, Vital Ground directly addresses these parallel needs. See how you can help today.