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The history of grizzly bear safety in Montana - and the present

Bear safety in Glacier National Park
Posted at 9:53 AM, Jun 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-08 12:02:48-04

WEST GLACIER — We’re well into the season of emerging from hibernation - that is, while humans are starting to get out and enjoy the outdoors that surround us, bears are too. Grizzly-human interactions are challenging to track statistically because details of encounters are often unknown but it's it’s imperative to stay safe in bear country.

Carl Mock died in April after being attacked by a grizzly bear while fishing just outside Yellowstone National Park. The bear was killed after charging a group investigating the incident - a nearby moose carcass was determined to be a factor in the aggression.

MTN News interviewed Glacier National Park carnivore biologist John Waller to learn more about grizzlies, who live as protected species in the park - and about how "Night of the Grizzlies" became a pivotal moment for bear management.

“In 1967, the 'Night of the Grizzlies,' that was when two young women were killed by grizzly bears, two different grizzly bears in two different places in the park on the same night," Waller explained, "And if you think about the odds of that happening, it's a very unusual event but it got everybody's attention in a big way, and almost overnight the Park Service realized it had to change the way it managed bears.”

Before August 12, 1967, no deadly grizzly encounters had been recorded at Glacier National Park. Tragically that night two women lost their lives while camping and a man was severely injured. “Prior to that, people were a little sloppy when it came to their behavior around bears, particularly food and garbage storage," Waller explained.

That night led to a dramatic shift in bear management as the Park set rigorous new requirements for staff and visitors, and tools like bear-proof garbage and food storage became mandatory. “What we learned was that bears that are given free access to human foods and garbage are more likely to attack people and to kill people,” Waller said.

As bear management has increased, so has the grizzly bear population. Waller told us despite the growth, bear and human conflicts have decreased in the park.

“We're expecting over three million people this year. And, you know, you put three million people in a million-acre National Park with several hundred grizzly bears and you would expect something might happen but nothing ever does. So I attribute that a lot to the proactive work we've done to minimize those conflicts but also educate visitors how to behave in bear country,” Waller said. "And also I think bear spray has been huge, too."

Bear spray is an essential tool to carry when accessing the outdoors. Knowing how and when to use it is key.

Because grizzlies are a protected species, it's illegal to harm, harass, or kill grizzly bears, except in cases of self-defense or the defense of others. Regardless, hunting is prohibited in Glacier and Yellowstone, but for grizzlies in the rest of Montana, that may change. De-listing these predators from the Endangered Species Act is currently a major point of debate. Conflicts with livestock owners and increased range as grizzlies grow in numbers are concerning to many Montanans. However, on March 31, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recommended no change to the current listed status.

Wild animals in national park are exactly that - wild. When an animal is near a trail, boardwalk, parking lot, or in a developed area, visitors must give it space. Park guidelines state that visitors must stay 25 yards away from all large animals – bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, and coyotes - and at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves.

FWP says that preventing a conflict is easier than dealing with one, and offers the following information:

  • Bear spray is a highly effective, non-lethal bear deterrent. Carry EPA-approved bear spray and know how to use it.
  • Never feed wildlife, especially bears. Bears that become food conditioned lose their natural foraging behavior and pose a threat to human safety. It is illegal to feed bears in Montana.
  • Know your bears. It is important to know the difference between grizzly bears and black bears, whether you are hunting or hiking.
  • Always keep a safe distance from wildlife. Never intentionally get close to a bear.
  • Remove or secure food attractants. Bear-resistant containers and a properly constructed electrified fence are proven effective at deterring bears.
  • For more information, visit