Despite a century of wild folklore and beastly tales, the grizzly bears located in Western Montana could be described as gentle giants.
The 300- to 500-pound animals might have large, powerful claws and threatening teeth, but the truth is huckleberries and pinenuts are their food of choice, not humans.
Author Richard Mace brought this and other grizzly facts to the James Ford Bell Museum on Tuesday as a part of the annual Koshorn Memorial Lecture Series and Natural Resources Week. His speech, “Grizzly Bears: Ecology and Management in Montana,” was the result of his 10-year demographic study of the grizzly bear in the Swan Mountains in Western Montana.
The bears are listed as threatened creatures on the 1975 Endangered Species Act. Mace said that although this species once covered a huge portion of the western United States, the grizzlies now are numbered at about 1,000. The populations now just dot the northwestern border of the country.
A research biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Mace has been involved in grizzly bear research and management for 20 years.
First, he took a head count of the bears in the area. To do this, Mace and the researchers involved in the demographic study developed a remote camera system and also utilized aerial telemetry procedures.
Mace said that the grizzly bear is a difficult species to count, and it is even more difficult across a large ecosystems because they occur in such low densities. But his research proves that bears in the small area he looked at are declining.
Although the number of bears have reduced greatly from the days of the great frontier, Mace said that the species is not in danger of extinction.
Later in his research, Mace moved from counting the beast to studying its relationship with the habitat.
Despite myths, only about 12 fatalities caused by grizzlies occur each year and each case is in the National Parks.
Mace said this is because bears in the parks have no fear of man, whereas bears in the back country have less contact with humans and mind there own business.
The lower elevation habitats are places where humans do conflict with the bears. Bears are attracted to anything human, from garbage to bird feeders.
Sometimes it is nearly impossible for them to keep to themselves. Mace has to deal with many bears each year that have gotten too close to human settlement. In fact, the county near his bear study is the third fastest growing county in the United States. Bears invade backyards and have been known to walk in on schools’ recesses.
Agencies, such as Fish, Wildlife and Parks, are responsible for looking at the bears differently than in the past. Study is now based on conservation ethics instead of exploitation.
“What we need to do now is take the habitats that exist now and protect them,” said Mace. “I am confident 50 to 70 years down the road, we can and will have grizzly bears.”