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Montana Grizzly Bears: Conservation, Taco Sauce and the Future

This might sound a little weird, but right now we have a problem: we don't have enough Montana grizzly bears.

Sure, there was a time when just about anyone from Big Sky Country would tell you that one grizzly bear was one too many, but things have changed around here in the last fifty years.

Ever since the grizzly landed on the endangered species list, we've been doing quite a bit in Montana to get their numbers back up, and so far we've done a pretty fair job of it.

If you're wondering why anyone would want a bunch of large carnivores wandering around their yard, I have to say that's a question which has crossed my mind a time or two as well. Living with bears isn't the easiest lifestyle to maintain.

Grizzlies tend to have very poor dispositions. The female of the species has no sense of humor whatsoever when it comes to her cubs; the males think they own the whole forest, and both sexes have the bulk to back up their brag.

The rub is that as conservationists, we can't pick and choose the species we'd like preserve. If they were there when the people showed up, chances are they belong there. It doesn't matter if they're cute and lovable or a one ton, meat-loving, chronically malcontent eating machine.

I wouldn't go so far as to say I like grizzly bears, but I'd like to see them off the endangered species list like any other outdoor enthusiast. I also have a few personal, slightly selfish reasons for hoping they come off the list, but we'll get to that later.

So what's the trouble with getting more grizzly bears roaming around? Shouldn't a critter that can fight a freight train be able to multiply and be fruitful pretty easily?

The short answer is: yes, bears do pretty well when it comes to breeding numbers. The trouble starts when they interact with people.

For a while, we'd lose a few grizzlies every year to black bear hunters, and for the most part this was unintentional. A black bear hunter would go out, find an immature or oddly-colored bear that really did resemble a black bear, and pull the trigger.

To counteract this, Montana has instituted a program that requires hunters to pass bear identification classes before they can buy a black bear hunting license, which really has made a big difference. The identification classes drill the fine points of bear morphology into sportsmen and an $8,000 fine acts as another great deterrent.

Occasionally, an over-excited black bear hunter will still drop the hammer on the wrong bear, but it's a tremendous rarity.

Of course, sometimes interaction between humans and bears isn't of the planned variety, and this is what really affects grizzly numbers in Montana.

When a human and a grizzly get too close to each other, something bad usually happens. Female grizzlies are extremely protective of their young and males are extremely protective of their personal space.

To make matters worse, grizzlies are some of the quietest animals on earth, capable of blending into their surroundings in places you'd never believe a giant predator could hide. Most of the time when a hunter or hiker bumps into one, it's a complete surprise with unpredictable results.

Now it's the oddest thing, but even though I'm a dyed-in-the-wool conservationist, when a bear tries to eat me, I just plum forget all that stuff my dad taught me about preserving the environment and reach for my gun.

I know, selfish thinking like that is what's wrong with this country. It's just that, while I really like nature, I don't like it enough to want to end up as fertilizer if I can help it.

Naturally, most people feel the same way I do, and this has lead to a large number of grizzlies being shot over the years in self-defense. In 99% of the cases when a hunter or hiker shoots a grizzly bear, it really is in self-defense; Homo sapiens and Ursus arctos horribilis just don't mix.

So you get more bears, they charge people, get shot and you're right back where you started with fewer bears. What's the answer?

So far the best thing we've come up with is bear spray and watchfulness. Yeah, it's not perfect, but it's the best we've got.

Any visitor to Montana this summer will notice that there are no shortage of signs with the message "BE BEAR AWARE" followed by advice on how to conduct yourself in bear country. To a hunter, this advice is pretty simple stuff: you simply look out for grizzly bears the same way you would look out for game.

If you're looking for bears, you stand an excellent chance of seeing the bear first and avoiding an incident. This is the easiest and least invasive way to cheat Old Ephraim out of a snack. It might sound like a pain in the neck, but remember that you're visiting a wild place, not a theme park, and it pays to pay attention to your surroundings.

If you're unlucky enough to end up staring a grizzly in the eye, bear spray is the most popular choice these days to get you off the menu. Most of us in Montana have always been a little skeptical about bear spray, but we're coming around.

Originally there were plenty of jokes surrounding the fact that the spray is made from peppers which would only serve to give the hikers a spicy, taco sauce-like flavor followed by the predictable gibes about how the only real bear spray was buck shot.

Most of this has fallen by the wayside. The simple fact of the matter is that bear spray is a heck of a lot easier to use on a belligerent bear than a firearm.

I know, we're all great shots, but consider the situation: The bear's mad as a hatter, he's coming at you with those very big teeth faster than any human can run and you've got to nail him in the spine or brain if you want to avoid just irritating him. Now remember all that stuff you learned shooting at targets, and for goodness sake don't pull the trigger -- just squeeze, nice and easy.

Or, maybe just hosing pepper spray in the bear's general direction is a bit easier.

Obviously, bear spray has an expiration date, like a fire extinguisher, so it must be either replaced or recharged. So far the only cases of bear spray not being effective on bears have been when the operators made the same mistakes people make with firearms.

It should also be mentioned that bear spray or a $1,000 handgun does you no good if it's buried in your pack. The key with bear spray is to keep it handy. Frankly, I'd advise carrying it in your hand while you're hiking; you carry your rifle at the ready when hunting and your bear spray should be no different.

Keeping it in a pack or even a holster might cost you the few seconds you need to be able to walk out of the woods instead of crawling out like Hugh Glass did.

As a final thought to consider involving bears and bear country, I'd like to point out that if we stop shooting bears when we have to, pretty soon we'll be able to start shooting bears when we want to.

Like any western hunter, I have a vested interest in increasing the number of grizzly bears in the hope that someday, hopefully before I'm pushing up daisies, there will be a grizzly season in Montana.

I grew up hearing stories about grizzly bear hunting from the old boys, and I'd love to be able to take a crack at it myself. If this means reaching for the pepper spray instead of the Ruger, I guess I can live with it.

If nothing else, I'll be interested to see if grizzly meat is excessively spicy from all those years of getting sprayed by the time the season finally comes around.

What are your feelings on grizzly bears in Montana and elsewhere? Leave your comments below.

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Montana Grizzly Bears: Conservation, Taco Sauce and the Future