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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

In Grizzly Country, COVID Brings Massive Recreation Increase, Surprisingly Fewer Conflicts

Fish cooking over a campfire.

Wildlife managers across the region noted a drastic increase in the number of people recreating in bear country this year, but that spike didn’t lead to a bump in conflicts between humans and grizzlies. 

That's the takeaway from a year-end review of grizzly management in the Lower 48 states this week.

Public land managers, wildlife biologists, and other specialists from states and the federal government on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee identified the influx of visitors — mostly people from out of state, and those with little “bear awareness” — as the “COVID effect.”

Montana saw increased visitation and hunting, said Martha Williams from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Toby Boudreau from Idaho Fish and Game also said there were a lot more people outdoor recreating. 

"Numbers off the charts for us from anything we have seen in recent years," said Jacque Buchanan with the U.S. Forest Service

The National Park Service's Jennifer Carpenter said parks "saw an increase in visitation this summer, with a lot of first-time national park visitors or public land users, I would say."

"And just every single pullout had somebody camping somewhere," Randy Arnold with Montana FWP said.

In Wyoming, "We did see a deluge of people. Wyoming was like free America it seemed like," according to Dan Thompson with Wyoming Fish and Game.

While the overall number of conflicts across grizzly ecosystems stayed the same or dropped this year, some specific areas did see small rises in bears getting into property, livestock, and unsecured attractants.

But after recent record years in grizzly bear deaths in both the Yellowstone and Glacier areas, mortalities in both of those regions actually went down in 2020. In the Yellowstone area, there were 49 documented mortalities this year, compared to 68 in 2018. Around Glacier, there were 35 in 2020, compared to more than 50 in both 2018 and 2019.

Officials like the U.S. Forest Service’s Jacque Buchanan said the outcomes this year were probably "lucky for us," and recognized that bear managers will have their work cut out for them when bears wake up from hibernation if that flood of recreation continues.

Nick Mott is a reporter and podcast producer based in Livingston, Montana.
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