BILLINGS — Conflicts between humans and grizzly bears in the region around Yellowstone National Park eased up slightly last year, yet the long-term trend still points to more potentially dangerous interactions as populations of both bruins and people increase.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team documented 252 grizzly run-ins with people in 2013. That’s down from recent years but roughly twice as many conflicts as a decade ago.
They ranged from bears attacking livestock and damaging property in search of food to surprising backcountry encounters. Six people were injured by grizzlies — the same as in 2012.
With more bears meeting more people in more places, the high level of conflict isn’t going away soon, said grizzly bear researchers.
“As long as we have bears at this level, the problems are here to stay,” said Frank van Manen, who leads the grizzly bear study team for the U.S. Geological Survey. “It’s a matter of containing the problems over time and hopefully reducing those.”
There are an estimated 740 bears in the region that includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and adjacent portions of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
Almost two-thirds of last year’s conflicts occurred in northeast Wyoming, where grizzlies have filled up more remote habitat and moved into areas with more people and livestock. Some of those bears are now pushing north into Montana along the front of the Beartooth mountains around the town of Red Lodge, said Kevin Frey, a bear management specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“We’re trying to make it work out for the people and the bears. It’s a mental adjustment that grizzlies are out there,” Frey said.
Grizzlies received federal protections in 1975 after getting wiped out across much of their historical range.
The Yellowstone population has slowly rebounded and now hosts the second-largest concentration of grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states. Those bears range across 19,000 square miles centered on the high country of Yellowstone and surrounding national forests.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering lifting protections and declaring Yellowstone’s bears recovered, which would allow some hunting.
The other large concentration of bears in the Lower 48 states is in northwest Montana around Glacier National Park, where there have also been more conflicts as the species recovers from widespread extermination last century.
In both regions, bears have run into trouble where their territory overlaps with inhabited areas.
Bear numbers in the Yellowstone area are up by roughly 50 percent over the last 10 years.
Meanwhile, people have been pushing in: Frey said the Montana counties in the region saw their population spike 25 percent last decade.
That means measures taken in recent years to drive down conflicts — such as using bear-proof garbage containers and discouraging the use of bird feeders that attract bears — will have to continue being introduced to new communities.