For those of us who remember the grim forecasts for Yellowstone grizzly bears in the 1980s, the news out of Bozeman earlier this week was cause to celebrate.
From a low of fewer than 200 grizzlies a mere generation ago, more than three times that many roam Greater Yellowstone today. Eyeball tests have provided similar anecdotal data in recent years: Seeing a grizzly in Greater Yellowstone, while always a breathtaking thrill, is no longer the wildlife equivalent of a solar eclipse. More bears are in more places than they’ve been in our lifetimes.
Greater Yellowstone Coalition was founded 30 years ago to help rescue the Yellowstone grizzly from extinction. We rejoice with our partners — federal and state wildlife managers, fellow conservation groups, visionary landowners and many, many others — over one of the great conservation success stories of our time.
So, what’s next for the great bear?
We cannot simply rub our hands in congratulatory satisfaction and move on to the next challenge. In many ways, our work on the Yellowstone grizzly bear has just begun.
GYC’s focus today is on one fundamental question: What’s best for the Yellowstone grizzly bear long-term?
For three decades, GYC and other bear champions have been playing defense. Our mission has been to save a keystone species and ensure that Greater Yellowstone remains one of the planet’s 12 intact ecosystems.
We will of course remain vigilant, whether it’s the federal government or Montana, Idaho and Wyoming managing grizzlies. But we believe the bear — and the people who live, work and recreate in Greater Yellowstone — will be served best by sharply focused on-the-ground efforts that foster coexistence with humans while also protecting habitat and ensuring linkage with other bear populations in the Northern Rockies.
Living with bears
The majority of grizzly mortality is the result of unfortunate encounters with people. Working with our partners, GYC’s goal is to reduce human-caused mortality and build durable social acceptance for living safely with bears. Tangible ways to accomplish this: Outfit Greater Yellowstone’s communities, campgrounds and trailheads with bear-proof containers; ensure every hunter and hiker in grizzly country carries bear spray; and educate residents and visitors about proper storage of bear attractants.
Other effective tools are at our fingertips. Electric fencing keeps livestock safe. Carcass removal on ranches eliminates bear magnets.
Does it work? Yes. Since 2007, GYC has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service and Idaho Fish & Game to distribute more than 200 bear-proof garbage bins. The result: Only one conflict over garbage in 2013. A shining model for such work is under way in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, where landowners, wildlife managers and conservationists have used similar programs to reduce grizzly bear conflicts by 96 percent — 96 percent! — over the past 15 years.
Perhaps the greatest threat to Greater Yellowstone’s grizzlies in a time of climate change is that they are an island population, separated from other bears. Connecting those distinct populations will be a game-changer for the grizzly’s future.
To that end, GYC and partners are engaged with landowners and wildlife managers to protect and reconnect habitats, especially along streams. In the upper Madison River valley, for example, we’re working to restore riparian areas and other key places bears use to move across the landscape — to the benefit of all wildlife, not just bears.
Without question, safe and secure habitat for grizzly bears is critical to their long-term success. The same wild country that produces clean water, unparalleled hunting and fishing opportunities, world-class wildlife watching, and drives the tourism and business economy also is critical for grizzly bears. We will continue to work with federal and state agencies, communities, landowners and others to ensure this region remains intact and functional – for bears and for people.
Yellowstone’s grizzlies have made a remarkable come back, and for that we celebrate. Now, it’s time to work to sustain Greater Yellowstone’s iconic symbol of wildness — the grizzly bear.
Caroline Byrd is executive director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman.
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