This is where an exposed sagebrush sea rolls into the cover of evergreen needles. Grizzly bears use both. Where fish flourish in headwaters and game grows wild. Grizzly bears eat both. Where people live, work, play and natural resources thrive, struggle, maintain. Grizzly bears experience all of it.
This is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and whatever you’re coming here to do this summer, you’re going to have to change how you do it.
Grizzly bears are back on the landscape.
The grizzly bear count
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the largest relatively undeveloped ecosystems on Earth. At more than 34,000 square miles, it’s nearly the size of Maine. It includes Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park plus other portions of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
There were fewer than 200 grizzlies in the ecosystem when the bears were listed as “threatened” on the Endangered Species List in 1975. Forty-four years later, there are more than 700.
Grizzlies were briefly delisted in 2017, but relisted in 2018 as the population continues to recover and their range continues to expand. Grizzlies easily travel up to 1,000 miles in one summer. Odds are low you’ll actually see one in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but odds are higher now than they were in 1975.
“It’s all about what’s motivating them. They’ll walk 12 miles in one night,” said Curtis Hendricks, Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional wildlife manager. “Their ability to actually find forage and make a living on a wide variety of things is pretty incredible.”
Bear-proofing the campgrounds
While national parks are protected from subdivisions, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are not. Human development disrupts the ecosystem on all sides. People pressure — whether seasonal or permanent — shrinks space for the wild, putting trouble within a paw swipe.
Seedy birdfeeders on front porches and greasy barbecue grills in backyards are dinner bells for bears. Campgrounds provide even more feasting opportunities. Five national forests are within the greater ecosystem: Caribou-Targhee in Idaho, Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Custer-Gallatin in Montana and Shoshone and Bridger-Teton in Wyoming. Bear-proofing the 164 campgrounds within those five forests is a wallet-draining, time-hogging endeavor.
Bear-proof dumpsters and bear-resistant food storage containers were non-existent in the area just a handful of years ago. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition changed that with a multi-year, $1.3 million campground conversion. All U.S. Forest Service campgrounds within the greater ecosystem were bear-proofed by the end of 2018. The coalition expects the 1,194 new bins to be used when campers arrive this summer.
“There are generations of folks who aren’t used to carrying bear spray or storing their food. They say: ‘I never used to do that. I don’t see the need to do that,’ ” said Kathy Rinaldi, Greater Yellowstone Coalition Idaho Conservation coordinator. “They have to change their behavior, and that’s hard for folks, but it’s really important for human safety and for conservation of grizzly bears.”
Regardless of what you do in the greater ecosystem, hook and bullet or hike and bike, carry bear spray and know how to use it. The know-how is vital. Just carrying it doesn’t cut it.
“When I have my bear spray with me, it’s always in my hand ready to go,” said Chris Kula, Caribou-Targhee National Forest wildlife biologist. “Ninety-nine percent of the time they’ll avoid you, but once in a while you’ll surprise a bear, and you better be prepared to defend yourself.”
Beyond being prepared, there’s the sensitive topic of purposely hunting an endangered species. Grizzlies nearly were hunted in 2018, but a federal judge stepped in before hunting season started in Idaho and Wyoming. Regardless of hunt status, dozens of grizzly bears are still killed annually.
Sixty-nine grizzlies died in the greater ecosystem in 2018. Forty-six of them are recorded as human-caused deaths.
Whatever the trigger — road kill, trail trouble and garbage guts — grizzlies feel the consequences, not people.
“Every year we have to manage a conflict bear or manage people who are making poor choices. It’s a never-ending process,” Hendricks said. “The fear of something bad happening with a person and a bear is the worst thing to have to deal with. It’s the stuff that keeps me awake at night.”
The number of grizzly bears in the greater ecosystem continues to grow. The number of people in the area continues to grow, too. When fewer than 200 grizzlies were listed as threatened in 1975, 2.2 million people visited Yellowstone. With more than 700 grizzlies now, 4.1 million people visited the park in 2018.
Grizzly bears in the West are a significant change for millions of people. A change decades in the making. A change millions of people don’t have decades to adjust to.
Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho Falls where she runs trail and chases trout. Sometimes she even catches them when she doesn’t have a camera, or a kid, on her back. Her first book, “My Place Among Men,” publishes Aug. 1. See more of her work at www.tightlinemedia.com.