Glancing Back, Moving Ahead: A Grizzly 2020

We don’t have to tell you that, for most people, grizzly bears were not the number one news story of 2020. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that last year was the worst year in recent history during which to embark on a project to build a highly-focused news and information blog dealing with just about any subject. We chose bears though, and here we are. Honestly, much of 2020’s bear news was good. It’s hard to believe after the year we all just came out of, but that’s true. 

Given our mission here at Bear Tracks, we couldn’t have asked for a better foil than Montana congressman Greg Gianforte. On the penultimate day of January, the right honorable (so long as you disregard his penchant for assaulting journalists) representative from Montana spoke in support of his Less Imprecision in Species Treatment (LIST) Act of 2020 whereby he made the claim that grizzly bears are coming to eat your children. In case you haven’t read our coverage, they’re not.

Later in February we highlighted grizzly mortality in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for the years 2018 and 2019. During that time 111 bears died in the region, the vast majority due to “management removal.”  In other words, they were killed by government officials because they came into conflict with humans. 2020 saw 49 confirmed bear deaths in the GYE, most of them, once again, from “management removals.” That doesn’t seem like very good news. And we would hope to see a decrease for 2021, but a relatively flat number is better than an increase.

While overall visitation at Yellowstone National Park was down a bit from 2019 due to pandemic restrictions in the spring, October visitors numbered more than any other October in history. Like so much about the last year, finding good news requires some effort, but it’s important to note that September and October are the months of greatest bear activity as grizzlies prepare for hibernation. Record-setting attendance during the busiest bear month of the year combined with a mortality rate that isn’t climbing is a net positive.

Bear Tracks is about conversations around grizzlies in the West. It says so right at the top of the page. In that vein we hope to help readers develop a foundation of knowledge about bears and the world they inhabit. In 2020 that meant exploring bear population, explaining the vital role bears play in their ecosystem, and helping readers understand how that ecosystem, in turn, affects bears. Learning should be interesting and fun so it also meant lists. The internet loves lists: things you probably didn’t know about bears, and facts to counter fears of “dangerous” bears.

Grizzly bear conservation requires a multifaceted approach. Inevitably it will be rooted in scientific and economic concerns. But privileging those perspectives over all others does a disservice to bears and people. We want readers to consider those other perspectives as well. Whether they be from ranchers trying to do things differently, a diversity of residents living in bear country, or native people who’ve coexisted much more successfully with bears for countless generations. Those are stories we told and we will showcase more voices like them in the year to come.

It is impossible, though, to separate bear “management” from economics. The nexus of that discussion most often centers on ranchers and livestock depredation. As far as that’s concerned, Bear Tracks will continue to advocate for prevention as a cheaper and ultimately more effective strategy for dealing with bear conflict.

Prevention and mitigation of that conflict requires conscious effort on the part of people living in bear country. It’s not easy, but  in many ways, Montana residents are showing the way in that regard, The Blackfoot Challenge being a case in point. More generally, Montanans reach near consensus on the question of the right of grizzlies to exist in their state. Not to put too fine a point on it (and you should follow the link to read for yourself) but that consensus is yes, bears have a place in Montana.

It’s one thing to harbor ignorance. It’s another thing entirely to cultivate it for dissemination. When elected officials at the local, state, and national level do that (see above, re: Gianforte) it is inevitable that political and legal disagreement will result. To that end, grizzly bears can’t defend themselves and it’s up to us to do so. “Us,” in this case, being advocates from the legal and scientific community. People dedicated to the wellbeing of bears continued to do that in 2020. And there were victories in the courts because of them, notably the ruling by the 9th circuit that maintained the grizzly’s status as an endangered species.

You’re likely tired of being reminded about how difficult 2020 turned out to be. So we’ll look forward to 2021 with optimism that it will be better for everyone. At Bear Tracks, we’re hopeful the imminent change in administration will pay dividends for grizzly bears. We will be here to cover the results. There will be room for more historical stories like our look at Horace Albright and Yellowstone in the 1920s. We’ll bring you more stories of people who care about bears. Maybe we’ll showcase the intersection of technology and bear conservation, whether that’s the use of facial recognition programs or how scientists study bear range and habitat using satellite imagery

Thanks for reading this year. Head over to Instagram and Facebook to follow us for updates. After you do, get outside as much as you can. If you’re lucky enough for those journeys to take you into the backcountry, don’t forget your bear spray.

We’ll leave you with this good news: after ranging further south than ever before, Grizzly 399 and her cubs made a safe return to Grand Teton National Park at the end of November, where they are now denned up and will emerge in the spring, about a third of the way through 2021. By which point we’ll have a good idea of how the year is going. Here’s to it being a great one for bears and everyone else. 

Photo credit: Daniel Ewert – Daniel Ewert Nature Photography