Grizzly bears once roamed much of the North American wilderness, from the Great Plains to the California coast and from Canada to Mexico. By the 1970s, persecution by human settlers had reduced populations in the lower 48 states from an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 to about 400 bears living in less than 2 percent of their historical range. However, thanks to protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, 1,700 to 1,800 grizzly bears now inhabit four of the six recovery areas with a potentially very small population remaining in the North Cascades of Washington State. There remains no confirmed grizzly bear population in the Bitterroot Ecosystem.
Habitat loss and human-related deaths are the largest threats facing ongoing grizzly bear recovery. Suburbs, highways, campgrounds, ranchlands and garbage dumps are now part of the landscape in grizzly country, leading to conflicts between people and bears. Defenders works with landowners, ranchers, government agencies and other partners to find solutions to these conflicts and to promote coexistence.
Defenders spearheads a variety of coexistence projects to prevent conflicts between livestock and grizzlies. These include helping our partners hire range riders, purchase livestock guarding dogs and install bear-resistant electric fencing to protect livestock, carcass pits and garbage sites. Defenders’ Grizzly Bear Compensation Trust reimburses ranchers for the cost of verified livestock losses to grizzly bears. As of 2013, we have reimbursed ranchers for more than $400,000 for lost livestock. In 2013 the state of Montana took over grizzly bear compensation, so Defenders ended its program in Montana. Defenders will continue to offer compensation in states that do not have their own program, such as Idaho. Having the states take over compensation programs allows us to concentrate and expand our coexistence and conflict prevention programs.
Working with communities
Grizzlies are opportunistic omnivores, meaning they will eat a wide range of foods—it all depends on what they encounter. Residential garbage bins and larger garbage dumps, birdfeeders, fruit trees, chicken coops and beehives are major bear attractants. Bears that frequent these food resources can come to associate human activity with food “rewards,” leading to safety concerns for people and bears. (Bears that become food-conditioned and habituated to human activity are often killed.) This is often avoidable. To proactively prevent these conflicts, Defenders offers funding for electric fencing and other types of bear-resistant containment for these human-generated bear attractants. When appropriate, we support the use of non-lethal aversive conditioning techniques by authorized managers to teach bears to associate close proximity to people with a negative experience. This may include the use of bean bag munitions, Karelian bear dogs and other such techniques. Defenders has invested over $500,000 on more than 250 coexistence projects ranging from securing residential garbage to food storage lockers in campgrounds and electric fencing for backyard chicken coops.
Keeping recreationists safe
To help reduce conflicts between bears and people enjoying the outdoors in bear country, Defenders assists with bear-resistant electric fencing kits for guides and outfitters, and helps with costs associated with food-hanging poles or bear-resistant boxes so that hunters, hikers and campers can safely hang or store their food out of reach. These measures help prevent bears from becoming food-conditioned in campgrounds, hunting camps and recreation areas. Additionally we promote the correct use of bear spray for those recreating in bear-country. Knowing how to carry and use bear spray in the unlikely event of an encounter can save both human and bear lives.
Spreading the word
Our community outreach bear awareness program is an important part of building tolerance for grizzly bears. . Defenders disseminates accurate, up-to-date information to the public about grizzly bears and preventing conflicts when living, working and recreating in bear country. We do this through workshops, as well as education events. Throughout the year, we talk to hundreds of people of all ages. In addition we are active on social media, blogs and in the media. Our work on the ground in the places where grizzlies live is vital to their recovery but we also recognize the support and interest in this iconic species from people all over the world.