People and Carnivores looks at coexisting with bears
100 people visit Cliff Lake Schoolhouse to learn about bears and avoiding conflicts with them
CAMERON – About 100 people gathered under a big white tent at the Cliff Lake Schoolhouse, along the Madison River, near Sportsman’s Paradise, on Thursday evening, July 12, to learn how they might coexist with the 718 grizzly bears currently roaming the Yellowstone ecosystem.
Following some pizza and beverages, People and Carnivores Conservation Director Steve Primm and Danielle Oyler, Education Coordinator with the Wildlife Management Institute’s Southwest Montana Bear Education Working Group, began their pitch for living with grizzlies.
The focus was keeping both people and bears safe.
Oyler’s emphasis was building the knowledge and skills to deal with bears.
She shared the natural history of grizzly bears, talked about becoming more aware of the presence of bears, and described some techniques for handling bear encounters.
Grizzly natural history
Montana has two kinds of bears, grizzlies and black bears.
Black bears are quite numerous and are often mistaken for grizzlies, due to the color variations in the coats of all bears.
Black bears can range from a cinnamon and almost blond color to coal black. Oyler pointed to the two mounted black bears behind her, noting that the smaller of the two, a 125-pound female, was a three-year-old with the classic black coloring; while the larger, cinnamon-colored bear, was a male of 225 pounds.
Grizzlies also range in colors from brown to “grizzled,” brown hair with blond tips.
The best ways to differentiate grizzly from black bears is to focus on three traits:
• Size - Grizzlies are usually larger than blacks. The mounted grizzly behind Oyler weighed 560 pounds, she said. But this isn’t always so.
• Humped shoulder blades - Grizzlies are diggers, with prominent shoulder blades. Black bears climb.
• Dished-in face - Black bears tend to have elongated snouts and pointy ears.
The annual cycle of a grizzly’s life begins when the bears emerge from winter hibernation – usually in March in the Yellowstone ecosystem, Oyler said. The earliest she has seen grizzlies is Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. These grizzlies are lethargic and sleepy, Oyler said. One Yellowstone bear she observed, ate from a bison carcass for 20 minutes, then slept the rest of the day.
These early bears are looking for greenery and winter kill carcasses, and they know year-to-year where to find early foods, and teach their young these places.
Spring and early summer grizzlies are focused on mating. May through July is grizzly mating season. A fertilized egg in a female grizzly may not implant until the bear enters hibernation again: If the bear is healthy, the egg will implant and she will bear young; if not, the egg doesn’t implant. This is one of many reasons grizzly numbers are small.
A mamma grizzly with cubs is a dangerous circumstance, Oyler said. Bears will fiercely protect their cubs if they believe them in danger. Most cubs stay with Mamma for two hibernation periods, Oyler said.
Fall is the time when Oyler said people must really put their “bear brains” on, the time when encounters can become very dangerous.
Autumn grizzlies are experiencing hyperphagia, a ramped up (natural) desire to eat as much as they can, to gain weight for winter hibernation. Bears will consume 20,000 calories per day, and spend 20 hours a day foraging for food in the Yellowstone ecosystem. With hunters afield, and the gut piles of deer, elk and pronghorns available, the potential for trouble increases.
Grizzlies, Oyler said, are usually most active at dawn and dusk.
However, female grizzlies with cubs, may spent more time roaming around at midday, especially during warm summer weather, to avoid other predators, including male grizzlies, who will kill cubs.
All bears, especially grizzlies, have decent vision and hearing, about equal to a human being, she said. However, their sense of smell is “amazing,” their most valuable asset. Grizzlies see the world through their noses.
To gauge this, she said, grizzlies can smell seven times better than a dog –dogs possess hundreds of thousands of chemo receptors that enable them to scent things from far away and decipher specifics about what they scent – and 100 times better than a human being.
Grizzlies can live as long as 20 years in the wild.
Becoming more aware of the presence of bears can help people avoid bear problems, Oyler told the crowd.
Part of this is recognizing that bears are all around, and the presence of a bear is best revealed by the sign it leaves behind: tracks, scat, markings.
Oyler discussed how to tell grizzly from black bear tracks: The base of grizzly toes align, black bears have a toe out of alignment and an arch-shaped array of toes. Also, grizzly tracks should reveal the bear’s five long claws.
Bear scat ranges from small to large and varies season-to-season, also depends on what the bear is eating. However, it generally looks like human scat, but is often chock full of seeds, grass and animal fur. Knowing what bears are eating can help people avoid problems by avoiding those areas: If bear scat shows lots of huckleberries, for example, stay out of the berry patches.
Bear rubs, usually found on larger trees, are signposts to other bears and will usually show claw marks on a rub tree.
Bear beds look a lot like a deer bed, but will have scat in them, Oyler said.
Other grizzly sign includes stumps and logs rolled over to look for insects, dug up ground around gopher holes, roots, corms and squirrel middens from bears looking for food.
Both of Montana’s bears can cause problems for people. Yet according to Primm, the likelihood of being killed by a grizzly is really quite slim. He said 1.45 people are killed by grizzly bears in North America annually.
Most bear encounters, Primm said, are defensive actions by the bear: The bear is protecting its cubs, a food source or believes itself to be threatened.
Bears being defensive will show this in their body postures and behavior. The bear may huff, pop its jaws, groan or moan, slap the ground with a paw and even bluff charge. These are the signs of a stressed out bear, Oyler said. She recommended standing your ground in these circumstances, having bear spray ready, and using it if the bear came within 30 feet (10 yards). When the bear is gone, has disengaged from the attack, back away from the scene and report it to the US Forest Service or law enforcement.
Far less common is the predatory bear; it views a human as prey. This bear is locked on to you, it will stalk you, circle around, follow.
Avoiding bear encounters is a matter of being aware and pro-active thinking, Oyler said.
• Location – Think bear in areas that have water, along trails that bears also like to use to travel, during strong winds, in heavy vegetation and in areas where bears might forage, like berry patches.
• Make noise – Loud human voices and clapping can alert bears and send them skedaddling. Metallic cans filled with stream pebbles can be rattled to produce noise, too.
• Stay alert – Be in tune with the environment around you. Take note of changes in sound, scents, the activity of other animals. If a bunch of vultures, ravens, crows, magpies or eagles are circling over an area, there could be an animal carcass – and a bear – nearby.
• Travel in groups – Oyler recommended three or more people in a group. In Yellowstone National Park, 91 percent of bear attacks happened to people traveling solo or with a partner. In groups of three or more, this figure was 9 percent.
• Horses – Primm said horse and rider tend to intimidate most grizzlies. He recounted the time when he ran a grizzly off a carcass when traveling with a packstring of 10 horses and mules, two people and some dogs. However, he emphasized that a good, safe horse could outrun a bear, so long as the rider stayed deep in the saddle. An inexperienced rider with a spooked horse could be in trouble.
• Dogs – Oyler and Primm recommended that dogs be kept close and in control around bears, because some loose-running dogs will harass a bear and actually bring the bear back to the owner.
• Bear spray – Oyler and Primm recommended bear spray for anyone going into the backcountry, and one of their primary missions was showing the group how to properly use it; how to remove the safety on the spray and use it properly against a charging bear. The spray contains capcaisin oils from chili peppers, an extreme irritant for animals. They urged the group to use only Environmental Protection Agency registered sprays, to practice mentally what to do and how to use the spray in the event of an attack, to replace sprays with expired use by dates, and to store sprays in a safe environment – not in a truck or RV in extremes of hot or cold.