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The Truth About Bears: The Maps

Bears in the lower 48 have rebounded from decades of declining populations and shrinking habitat. Also improving: your chance of seeing a bruin in the wild. By Ted Alvarez
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Expect More Bear Encounters
That same extreme adaptability leads to trouble where bears intersect with humans on the fringes of their expanding habitat. Grizzlies’ success means outcompeted subadults are pushing beyond the Rocky Mountains into historic territory on the Montana plains, where they haven’t been seen for generations.
“A few weeks ago, we had a report of a grizzly sticking its head in a dog door,” Servheen says. “Bears become opportunistic if they come upon a bee shed or turkeys—and that’s not viewed kindly. There’s a limit to human tolerance.”

“We’re trying to stay ahead of the game, work with the communities on ways to coexist with bears as this expanding population moves into its native grassland habitat,” says Mike Madel, a Montana state field biologist. There’s conflict, of course, but Madel says, “The majority of ranchers enjoy seeing grizzlies—they accept bears on their land.” The government reimburses ranchers for lost livestock, removes problem bears, and gives free bear spray to landowners who provide habitat. The most recent surveys in two key states, Montana and Wyoming, peg public support for Ursus arctos horribilis at about 70 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

For hikers, the chances of spying a bruin are better than ever—but so is a (possibly violent) encounter, which means you must be vigilant about using appropriate bear-country skills. But don’t worry about bloodthirsty bears run amok. They’re not getting more aggressive; biologists speculate that the growing populations of both humans and bears simply increase the chances for interactions across the board. Bottom line: Your odds of becoming a victim remain exceedingly small.

“We have a responsibility to be stewards and take care of other life forms,” says Servheen. “People think of bears as huge, omnipotent creatures. But really, they’re very vulnerable, and they’re not so resilient that they’re always going to be here no matter what. I want my grandkids to go see grizzly bears in Yellowstone and the Bob Marshall Wilderness years from now. Where bears live is a special place, and what we do there should be special.”

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