Grizzly bears began arriving in northwestern Montana’s Blackfoot Valley in the late 1990s. Their population in surrounding mountains multiplied and gradually spread out, coming down from higher elevations into the green pastures of cattle country to search for food, returning to habitat bears had lived in centuries before.
Wayne Slaght, who grew up raising cattle on a 21,000-acre ranch he manages, says he was the first valley rancher to see them. The bears were drawn to calving areas and the smell of cow carcasses piled nearby on Slaght’s Two Creek Monture Ranch in Ovando. Slaght carried neither bear spray nor a firearm, but he and his wife started taking radios with them so they wouldn’t be stranded alone if they ran into a bear. Slaght told his teenage sons to carry guns and avoid the banks of the creeks, where they might chance into the bears in heavy brush.
Ranchers understandably get emotional about the deaths of calves. They also worry about the presence of carnivores stressing their animals, reducing weight and conception rates. The Blackfoot Challenge and Swan Valley Bear Resources have defused much of this anger and anxiety by creating relationships. Wildlife officials and conservationists traveled to meet with ranchers and landowners, listening to their problems and delivering solutions (for example, mapping software revealed the huge role carcass piles played in attracting grizzlies).
“It’s about building trust between the ranching community and those who love wildlife,” says Seth Wilson, executive director of the Blackfoot Challenge and coordinator of the wildlife committee for its first 14 years. “You can have lots of conflicts with a small population of bears, or you can have very few conflicts with a large population of bears. It’s how we decide to behave as people.”
Slaght attributes the program’s success on his ranch to three things: electrified fencing around 770 acres where calves are born and graze; storing feed in bear-impenetrable heavy steel railroad cars; and quick carcass removal—during calving season, trucks come twice a week to pick them up. Slaght says he’s no bear lover, but he has learned to live with grizzles because that allows him and his family to stay on the land.
It will not be easy. In many parts of the country, hostility toward bears is so great that the Blackfoot and Swan Valley models would be a hard sell.
No one knows how many brown bears there actually are—a scientific study has not yet been done—but last year trophy hunters said there were too many and lobbied hard to once more be able to hunt them, despite a European Union ban authorizing the killing of bears only under very restrictive conditions. HSI joined with Romania-based groups to help stop that proposal. Now the goal is to win support for a new approach that is actually very old: For centuries, Romanians have coexisted with bears.
HSI/Romania’s new country director, Andreea Roseti, grew up in Romania and remembers a time when people had a different relationship with bears and wildlife, when they accepted that they could not safely go into the woods at night, when skilled shepherds watched over sheep and owners expected some losses—the blame was on the shepherd, not the wild animal. “That was natural, that was normal,” she says. “Now a lot of things that were natural, that were normal, aren’t. People who do not know anything about wildlife or have never seen a bear consider that there are too many of them and they are a danger.”
Roseti knows that her country cannot go back to that earlier era, but she is hoping Romanians can find a new way to live with their bears. Just like in the Blackfoot and Swan valleys, it will come through working with individual farmers and communities, changing the way people think about bears and reminding them that humans and bears have always shared the land.
Keeping backyards safe
Avoid conflicts with bears, wolves and coyotes by:
- Keeping cats and dogs indoors, except for supervised time on leashes or in kennels or catios.
- Putting garbage and compost in bear-proof containers and never composting meat or fish.
- Storing pet food, water dishes and bags of pet food and birdseed indoors.
- Harvesting fruit from trees promptly and disposing of pieces on the ground.
- Hanging bird feeders only in winter, raking up fallen seeds, hanging suet at least 7 feet high and taking in hummingbird food at night.
- Cleaning food scraps and grease off grills.