Only In Montana: Bear Education Edition


About a week ago, I opened my morning paper to the opinion page and found an editorial arguing for increased education funds.

Nothing unusual about that. Times are tough all over, and residents of every state in this nation are used to hearing calls for more money for education. What was unusual is the class of students the editorial writer had in mind:

[A] fully funded bear education program would make a wonderful gift to mark Glacier National Park’s centennial next year.

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

The editorial was written in response to a controversial decision by Glacier National Park officials to kill a mother grizzly who had become too friendly toward human users of the park. Although she had never attacked anyone, she was known to approach and “greet” hikers and campers, and officials were worried about both the potential immediate dangers of these interactions as well as the lessons that were being imparted to her two cubs.

In August, government agents tracked the bear down and shot her. They tried to tranquilize the two cubs for transport to a zoo, but, in the process, accidentally killed one of them, too.

This is a sad story, but what’s interesting to me is all the talk about one possible way that these deaths could have been prevented: bear education, or hazing intended to impress upon bears just how dangerous it is to hang around near humans.

Apparently, this approach had been tried with this very bear a few years back. As an earlier article about the problematic bear explained:

[I]n 2005, park rangers enlisted the help of Carrie Hunt and her Wind River Bear Institute. Think horse-whisperer for grizzly bears.

Hunt’s job is to teach bears and people how to live and let live, and her work with the Old Man Lake female was nothing short of precedent setting….

Hunt… [used] specially trained dogs to not simply instill fear in the bear, but to teach bears what was allowed and what was not…. they worked grizzlies the way cow dogs work cattle. This, she said, is sophisticated bear behavior modification, teaching bears how to make good – and lifesaving – choices.

Hunt “worked” this bear for 10 days that year and another 10 days in 2006, and her approach seemed to work: there was no sign of the problem bear for the next two years. Hunt felt the bear would need some “booster work,” but then the bear lost its radio collar, the park didn’t budget the funds, and the followup visit never happened-to the detriment not only of the bear, but anyone who values these animals as one of the last remnants of the great wilderness that this area-this country-once was.

If you do value these animals, it might interest you to know that times are pretty tough for them, too. The 600 grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone region (which includes this part of Montana) were removed from the endangered species list in 2007, but they’ve since been dying at a rate high enough to be on the verge of triggering federal reconsideration of their delisting. The death toll among this population is up to 17 this year, including the illegal slaying of one of the biggest known bears in Montana, a giant that stood more than seven and a half feet tall. Human-caused deaths-self defense, traffic accidents, illegal hunting-are partly to blame, but so is climate change, which is killing off some of these animals’ staple foods.

Clearly, then, bear education isn’t the only answer, but it might help reduce the overall rate at which we humans feel forced to kill these animals. Before signing on completely in support of an ongoing bear-education program, I’d need to know how much it would cost, and what else that money might otherwise get spent on (other than press releases defending the decision to kill a bear). But in the abstract, I’m all for it: increased funding for bear education!