4 Tips For Living With Bears: Lessons from the Blackfoot Challenge

As grizzly bears reclaim territory they inhabited before their massive population decline, communities are adjusting to having this keystone species in their midst. Some do this with more grace than others. We know that having grizzlies living on a landscape elicits wonder and awe. Communities that are not governed by fear, but by respect and a sense of responsibility are achieving measurable success living side by side with grizzly bears.

Blackfoot Challenge Homepage
The Blackfoot Challenge homepage – http://www.blackfootchallenge.org

The Blackfoot Challenge is a community-based conservation organization in the remarkable Blackfoot River Valley near Missoula, Montana. This group has had a massive impact on reducing conflict with carnivores, and that is only one aspect of their broader mission. As grizzly bears move into other communities across Montana that haven’t seen them in many years, we are going to need a varsity squad at the helm in every community. Varsity players will tell you they had mentors, sought wisdom and pursued progress. They wanted to win.

Modeling the Blackfoot Challenge’s work of almost thirty years could be key for the success of other regions looking to coexist.

I had the opportunity to chat with Sara Schmidt, the communications manager of the Blackfoot Challenge, and the following is what I gathered.

Four tips to getting your community started on living with bears:

Provide a forum for people to share concerns and ideas.

It’s deeply reassuring to people when we hear that we are not alone with a problem or even with a thought. From that shared space, solutions can spring. The Blackfoot Challenge hosts monthly board meetings, and they do a great job of bringing stakeholders to the table

See people face to face.

As mentioned above, the board of the Blackfoot Challenge meets monthly. Every member of the board is mingling with their community between meetings, so the topics they discuss are current, and progress can be made with seasoned folks in the room. Additionally, spending time and sharing space with people enriches relationships and helps get to the heart of matters. As Sara said to me, “Process and success relies on relationships.” Seems simple, but this takes effort and time. 

Develop and refine a process, and let that process and your core values lead the way.

I think this is perhaps the golden tidbit that can be applied in any community. A community-based and collaborative process is something that is studied, no need to reinvent the wheel. If your community can come together and agree on this process, you can apply it to the vast majority of situations you will ever have to deal with. Key elements of the Blackfoot Challenge’s process? Inclusivity, transparency and patience.

Follow the 80/20 rule.

In the case of the Blackfoot Challenge, 80 percent refers to those issues most people agree they want to solve. Think youth education, noxious weeds, or a new community center. One can argue about the theoretical complications in any puzzle, but if you set aside the 20 percent of issues that divide the community and focus on where you agree, you’re on a path with real potential. Meanwhile, you’re building the trust and credibility required to tackle that 20 percent later on.

One constant in what Sara shared with me is the notion that trust is currency. Also, that each success comes from many touch points in a remarkable community with people who have been willing to put in the time to build the trust they now enjoy. It makes a lot of sense then, that other communities would do well to start their relationship and coalition building now. 

New Leadership at the Blackfoot Challenge

Last fall, the organization hired Seth Wilson as their executive director, and they are currently engaged in strategic planning for their future. They have recently updated their website and will continue to expand that resource to better serve their community. They are also gathering updated statistics so that they can better quantify their work. Bear Tracks looks forward to talking with the crew at the Blackfoot Challenge once those numbers are in. We have a feeling the news will be inspiring.

From a research paper that Seth co-authored with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “According to FWP Region 2 data, there has been a 74-percent reduction in reported and verified human–grizzly bear conflicts in the project area from 2003 to 2013 and a downward trend in known grizzly bear mortalities.” Nobody can argue with that!

Stepping into Coexistence

For all regions that will be welcoming bears in the near future, the time to start planning for that is yesterday, the bears are on the move. There are resources and models to help get you started down the path of coexistence, and as the Blackfoot Challenge continues to to help their communities evolve and adapt to living with bears, they will provide plenty of leadership to inspire you along the way.