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July 15, 2014 7:34 am

More aware of bears: Public education campaign launched about growing GYE grizzly population

Written by Gib Mathers

Grizzly bear jams are becoming more frequent in Grand Teton National Park, leading National Park Service managers to initiate more public awareness of the issue. Grizzly bear jams are becoming more frequent in Grand Teton National Park, leading National Park Service managers to initiate more public awareness of the issue. Photo courtesy Gary Pollock, Grand Teton National Park

Grizzly bears are rebounding, making it crucial that people heed bear aware programs and officials convey that message in a coherent package.

When the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was at its lowest in the 1970s, it was thought the bruins only inhabited Yellowstone National Park, according to Sue Consolo-Murphy.

That’s what she said at the Draper Natural History Museum Lunchtime Expedition on July 3. Consolo-Murphy is chief of science and resource management for Grand Teton National Park.

In the 1980s, there were very few grizzly sightings in Grand Teton. By the 1990s the bears were spotted in the northern part of the park and in the southern boundary by 2008, she said.

It’s clear that the GYE grizzly population is growing, Consolo-Murphy said.

The National Academy of Science Review estimated there were roughly 175 to 225 grizzlies in the GYE in 1973. In 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed lower 48 states grizzlies as “threatened” on the Endangered Species list.

In 2013 the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study team’s minimum estimate was 741 grizzlies in the GYE, she said

Wildlife biologists did not examine what the future would bring when the bear rebounded, Consolo-Murphy said.

In 2008 there were 110 grizzly bear jams in Grand Teton. In 2011, the number rose to 200.

“And we were unprepared to deal with it,” Consolo-Murphy said.

“Bear jams” occur when automobiles are haphazardly parked and people are everywhere photographing and gaping at a bear or bears. Traffic slows or comes to a halt.

As it became evident there were more bruins, Grand Teton began scrutinizing its bear management program and the dangers of human-bear conflicts, Consolo-Murphy said. The park adopted a phrase gaining in regional use, “Be bear aware.”

“It’s OK to have commonality in the ecosystem,” she said of the phrase’s popularity.

A survey was conducted in 2010 to gauge the park’s bear-aware message.  Of the 634 respondents, about half were visiting the park for the first time. On picnic tables, 89 percent saw the bear warning signs. On trash receptacles, it was 86 percent, Consolo-Murphy said.

Signs closing specific areas due to bear activity were noted by 11 percent of the park’s visitors, she said.

Ninety-seven percent of those surveyed agreed there were grizzlies in Grand Teton and 99 percent knew not to run from bears.

“They had a reasonably high level of knowledge,” Consolo-Murphy said.

Grizzlies can generally outrun humans and running from them may trigger an attack as a fleeing figure may resemble prey and the animal’s instincts take over.

“Running is generally not at all recommended,” she said.

There are several misconceptions about bears and humans.

Some believe bear bells are a handy way to warn bears of approaching humans. But the bruin may not hear bells when they are near a noisy creek or it’s windy, Consolo-Murphy said.

A bear standing on its hind legs is not necessarily a signal it is launching an attack. Bears stand on two legs to sniff the air or see better, she said.

Hikers surveyed revealed that 31 percent said they had what they perceived as an unsafe experience with a bear and 21 percent said a bear raided their food. Only 28 percent carried bear spray, a statistic Consolo-Murphy wants to increase for public safety, she said.

Based on a study done by wildlife author Stephen Herrero, as well as one performed in Alaska, when people used bear spray to fend off a charging bear, no bears were killed and 2 percent of the people involved suffered injuries. When using guns, 61 percent of the bears died and 56 percent of the people were injured, Consolo-Murphy said.

Of the four human deaths from grizzlies in 2010-11 in the GYE, one ran from the bear and none used spray, she said.

The stuff is expensive — $40 to $50 per can — and she suspects some people don’t purchase bear spray, particularly vacationers because they are visiting the area for a short time.

There are efforts underway by non-government organizations to determine if there is viable means to recycle/redistribute used cans of bear spray, Consolo-Murphy said.

Fish and Wildlife is evaluating the tenability of removing federal protections for grizzlies in the GYE this year.

“I believe we have recovered the species and it can be removed from the list,” she said.

Consolo-Murphy said she suspects grizzlies may have reached carrying capacity in the GYE. One challenge facing people is more grizzlies turning up in people’s rural yards and corrals, she said.

Modifying people’s behavior can help. For instance teaching hunters or campers to take precautions while in the field is a step in the right direction. The tall fence to keep bears out of the playground at Wapiti School is a proactive measure and another step in the right direction, Consolo-Murphy said.

Refining the same message for the entire GYE is essential, she said.

“Everyone spreading the same good message is terrific,” Consolo-Murphy said. “More and more we realize just how important that is.”

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