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Wildlife

Grizzly Relocations Underscore Need for Greater Bear Awareness

As management agencies parse management responsibilities, grassroots educational opportunities on bear-human coexistence abound at Polebridge Bear Fair

By Tristan Scott

The recent relocation of a grizzly to the northern tip of the Bob Marshall Wilderness — a dream vacation for many outdoor-loving Montanans, but a first-strike federal management action for the “problem bear” caught breaking into unsecured chicken coops inside the rapidly expanding wildland-urban interface — sharpens the point on an old adage that wildlife managers have repeated ad nauseam: “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

“The community can help prevent the need for relocations and make a difference in a bear’s life by doing its part to ensure bears never obtain food rewards,” according to a public service announcement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the federal agency that, following a recent change to Montana law, assumed some grizzly-relocation responsibilities from its state partners at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP).

The federally endangered grizzly bear population serves as a recovery success story in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), where state wildlife specialists still conduct relocations in partnership with the FWS, due in large part to the relationships FWP managers have forged with communities living among bears.

“As grizzly bears recover in numbers and geographic regions, it is essential to remember that this area is within the historical range for grizzly bears as they naturally reoccupy this habitat,” the statement continues. “Relocating a bear from a more developed location to adjacent remote areas is mutually beneficial to both the bear and humans. This allows the bear to be removed from another potential conflict while creating more space between them and human development.”

However, when that space narrows so much so that a habituated bear presents a safety threat to humans, relocation is no longer an eligible management tool. Enter the Polebridge Bear Fair, an upcoming annual event that seeks to educate homeowners and businesses and to promote awareness about the resources available to mitigate conflict from ever occurring between people and bears.

The Polebridge Bear Fair is planned for Saturday, July 30 from noon to 5:30 p.m. at the Home Ranch Bottoms, 8950 North Fork Road in Polebridge. The family friendly event is free and open to the public, providing educational opportunities and fun ways to learn about co-existing with bears in northwest Montana. Hosted by the North Fork Preservation Association with partners Polebridge Bear Smart and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, the fair will feature exhibits, speakers, and kid’s activities to promote awareness and stewardship specific to grizzly bears, black bears, and people sharing the diverse landscape of Northwestern Montana.

“When I moved to the North Fork in 1979, we didn’t have the need to host a bear fair,” said Diane Boyd, a North Fork resident and retired biologist who has lived among carnivores like bears and wolves for more than four decades, both personally and professionally. “Back then, we had half as many grizzlies and far fewer people. That’s just not the case today. The North Fork has been discovered and developed and there’s a whole new demographic here.” 

As a retired wolf biologist with FWP and an active member of the North Fork community, Boyd considers it her duty to raise awareness and shift the public perception of what it means to coexist with carnivores. That means folks being proactive in their daily routines — electrifying their chicken coops and bear-proofing their trash bins; storing their birdfeeders and livestock chow; and scrubbing their barbecue grills until they gleam.

“I think we can save a bear or two,” Boyd said. “And because bears adopt learned behaviors, that can often mean saving five or six bears. It keeps bears out of trouble, so they don’t have to be relocated or killed.”

The North Fork of the Flathead River Valley runs for nearly 60 miles along the western flank of Glacier National Park, and is home to a suite of indigenous species, including grizzly and black bear, moose, gray wolf, mountain lion, lynx, wolverine, and the endangered bull trout.

According to Boyd, who serves as a volunteer wildlife coordinator for the North Fork Preservation Association, the increased presence of humans on this delicate ecosystem presents the need for sound stewardship, land planning and wildlife education. The residents work closely with wildlife specialists and land managers to embrace those conservation practices to preserve the natural resources and their way of life, off the grid.

  “We are blessed to live and recreate in this wild landscape with its full complement of wildlife and wild rivers,” Boyd said. “However, our increasing human footprint has increasingly created human-wildlife conflicts that require thoughtful and active participation to keep the North Fork wild and problem-free. The Bear Fair is a great opportunity for people to learn how to do this.”

Justine Vallieres, FWP’s Wildlife Conflict Management Specialist, will be on hand at the Polebridge Bear Fair to explain the importance of education to avoid bear-human conflicts, which she too often resolves through relocations and, ultimately, removal of a bear from the population.

“Education is important for public safety and the conservation of bears,” Vallieres said. “I appreciate the efforts of the North Fork community to organize this Bear Fair and promote the simple steps everyone can take to keep bears wild and people safe.”

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