If you have a social media account, you’ve likely heard of a bear in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem that’s captivated the attention of millions.
Grizzly 399 is arguably the most famous and iconic bear in the world, with followers numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
The 25-year-old doting mother of four has her own Facebook and Twitter accounts. Books have been written about her. Tourists plan vacations around hoping to catch a glimpse of her and her cubs. A good part of her notoriety is without doubt because of her charismatic offspring. A grizzly having, much less keeping alive, four cubs is exceedingly rare.
Deep into winter last year, Grizzly 399 devotees became anxious. Bears begin winter hibernation in fall, and females with cubs tend to be the first to seek dens. On Christmas Day, Grizzly 399 and her cubs were surprisingly still out and about on the landscape.
According to newspaper accounts, the bear family was getting into food sources associated with human activity. Grizzly 399 and her cubs had been raiding beehives, livestock grain and compost near homes. They spent considerable time in a Jackson Hole backyard feeding from tubs of molasses-enriched grain, supposedly set out for moose. This alarmed wildlife officials concerned for the bear family’s welfare.
Bears have exceptional noses. With an extraordinary sense of smell, they are enticed near people by the alluring scents of garbage, outdoor grills, ripened apples, chickens, pet feed and more.
In 2020, over 2,600 of the nearly 5,000 bear-related reports to Colorado Parks and Wildlife were of bears accessing unsecured trash cans and other human foods. Bears obtain huge caloric boosts from these “food rewards” and quickly seek out more. They can become increasingly bold in their attempts to obtain more of these foods, often resulting in damage to vehicles, garages, chicken coops and homes.
Once bears come into conflict with people, options for wildlife officials are limited and often tragic. These “conflict” bears are hazed, relocated or, in some cases, humanely killed. The old saying “a fed bear is a dead bear” is still very much appropriate. Last year, 49 grizzly bears died within the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, and 33 were human-caused.
So, what does a grizzly bear family roaming near Grand Teton National Park have to do with our area, you ask? Grizzly 399’s story is one you hear often anywhere in bear country, including here in Colorado with our black bear population. In 2020, Colorado wildlife officials killed 120 bears in the state, the second most in the past five years. Landowners killed 143 bears and another 124 were killed by vehicles. Unwanted behavior caused 89 bears to be captured and relocated.
The vast majority of human-bear conflict is preventable, and fortunately, there are some simple precautions you can take to help make our area safer for both people and bears:
Keep trash in a bear-resistant trash container or stored in a garage or shed (note that bears do break into structures). Remove bird feeders during bear season, as it’s nearly impossible to feed birds without also feeding bears. Keep doors or windows accessible to bears closed and locked, including garage and vehicle doors.Never leave food or anything with an odor in vehicles. If you have fruit trees on your property, remove fruit from the trees and the ground, or register your tree at fruitglean.org to keep bears from harm while also feeding the community. Feed pets indoors and store any feed in bear-resistant containers. Empty grease traps from your outdoor grill. Electric fencing works spectacularly in protecting chickens, beehives, fruit trees, compost and more. Don’t allow bears to become accustomed to being around homes.Immediately report bear sightings and incidents to Colorado Parks and Wildlife at 247-0855 or online at BearSmartDurango.org. Durango residents should report incidents of bears getting into trash by calling City Code Enforcement at 375-4930, while La Plata County residents can call Animal Protection at 385-2900.We all must do our part to reduce the risk of human-bear conflict and habituating these animals to human environments. The tenuous situation with Grizzly 399 was avoidable and created by the actions of people. Let’s all work to prevent it from happening here.
Bryan Peterson is executive director of the nonprofit Bear Smart Durango, which offers solutions that work in addressing human-bear conflict helping keep both people and bears safe. For more information, visit BearSmartDurango.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.