The Valier grizzly meeting was a success in one way, perhaps the most important way: it broke up a good versus evil confrontation into a complex set of factors and possibilities. The simple version is that grizzlies are walking through Valier and Valier just won’t have it. This community doesn’t even want chickens, much less bears. What follows is a series of thoughts, which I will group under three persons who were present, who are outstanding, and whom I’ve known and admired for a long time.
Obviously the first is Mike Madel, the bear management specialist from Choteau, whose slide show was the meat of the program. Dan Carney, his counterpart on the Blackfeet Rez, was there but didn’t speak. The place was teeming with Game Wardens and officials of various programs and I would have appreciated a cast of characters with phone numbers and affiliations. I joked with one handsome character at the door way where he was visiting with Ray Bukovecas, our mayor, but I can’t remember his name. I was kidding him about his crisp khaki military shirt with arm patches, metal name tag and belt loaded with sidearm and other accoutrements. After all, these guys do more or less CSI jobs. Many are women. To me, most seem to be high school students: they are young. They deserve distinction.
It is a plain fact that there are a lot more grizzlies and that they are coming out onto the prairie and into the towns. They are not labeled either Glacier Park or Yellowstone Park — just Rocky Mountains. It is a plain fact that the possibility of human/bear encounters is everywhere, even right in town. A couple of females have decided to just stay out on the prairie and are denning along the riverbanks, which teaches their cubs that prairie is their home. This preference does not mean they are a new species, but that they are bears that one-by-one are “prairie” in the sense that people are small town. It's "home."
This was an atypically mild winter and early spring (global warming? Not a plain fact, but a clear suspect.) That means bears were up and moving around and farther out on the prairie earlier, which caught the bear people off guard. The people responded the same way, but the opposite direction, moving up into the mountains and out to the fields a little earlier.
Bears have two things in mind: food and sex. (They’re SO much like people!) Females are in heat right now, which is luring males out onto the prairie. They are scattered enough that so far Madel reports no “bar fights.” It’s unclear where the males will go after they’ve done their duty to the future generations. They will kill and eat last year’s cubs, so the females move away from them, pulling them farther onto the flatlands.
The first response of many humans (they’re harder to manage than bears) is to use force. Their most first thought is guns, of course. Next, gunlike things like rubber bullets or flashbangs. The last have been misused enough to now be regulated. Rubber bullets are proving to be not nearly as safe as advertised. Used for crowd control, they have killed people. In the Seventies when the tranq darts were first being tried out in Glacier Park, there was one sad case of a small female black bear with a cub, not far from Running Eagle Falls, who was shot “through-and-through” as the CSI people say, with a simple dart from a gun cranked up too high. (The cub was never found.) Many things sold as miracle defenses -- with no skills needed -- are simply misrepresented.
The exception is bear spray, by far the most effective charge-stopper, but people don’t like it somehow, maybe because it’s also used for crowd control or it’s too much like chemical warfare or it might get in their own faces. (I always recommend a compressed-air boat horn which is loud enough to scare a moose — it works on dogs. There’s a new military-grade flashlight like a laser-beam, but I haven’t heard how well it works on bears with their squinty little eyes. I suspect it will also soon be regulated.)
When I asked where to buy bear spray, the women at the display table recommended internet sources rather than local businesses. (Bear spray cannot be mailed so it will come UPS or Fed Ex.) I would have appreciated a list of local sources or even a vendor on the scene, who could also provide the harness that straps the spray to your front, aimed out, in case you have your hands full. In a backpack spray is not accessible fast enough. But I’d like to see that harness demonstrated. Sounds good for fly fishermen walking creek banks.
Some folks last night had prepared questions. One was “what calibre rifle do you recommend for shooting a grizzly?” Of course, that brought laughter because no hunter (and a lot of them were probably there) has to ask. But the trouble with guns of any kind is that bears are hard to kill with one shot, can charge even after multiple shots (the one we had in the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife was shot almost a dozen times before it fell), and being shot will take its mind off food and sex so it can concentrate on deadly force, just like a person. I suppose an equally facetious answer might be an AK47, but there are already too many veterans around who think of that first. Maybe a double-barrelled shotgun loaded with buckshot, but who wants to lug that around? Don’t shoot at a bear unless you’re sure you can kill it. Otherwise, it just aggravates the violence. Even chasing it might cause it, now riled up, to run into some unsuspecting person.
The next point to make is that deadly force is always legal if you or someone else are in danger, or if your livestock is in danger. Another coup counting question was "how close does a bear have to be for you to shoot it?" It depends, doesn't it? Are you talking about a bear charging you? A bear on the porch, exploring for dog food? A bear on the other edge of a clearing who doesn't realize you're there? If the bear is ripping the siding off your chicken coop, I reckon it's a judgement call.
The best defense is a clear understanding of bear behavior, enough to avoid good napping day dens, to distinguish a bluff charge from real attack, and so on. I’ll look around for books.