As a student in Arizona in the early 1970s, I wondered if I would ever see a grizzly bear. The Yellowstone dumps had been closed, bears got in trouble and were killed, the population declined, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed, and the bear was put on the endangered species list.
While searching for opportunities, I came upon news articles which described the issue of bears and humans interacting along the Rocky Mountain Front and was fatefully offered a job in Choteau with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Choteau was at the heart of this bear/human interface.
I figured if bears could survive there it would have other admirable qualities: clean air, clean water, open country and wildlife. The bear was the ambassador for the place and instigated my investment in the job, the region and the community.
Bears hold a special place in the psyche of humans. Constellations, spiritual societies, stories, names, myths and even cuddly children’s toys reflect the human fascination with bears.
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In Yellowstone, humans wiped out wolves, but we always accepted bears. Even today, bears are the No. 1 animal people want to see in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
When I started our wildlife tour company, there were few entities capitalizing on the incredibly accessible wildlife of Montana. Today there are approximately 50 wildlife tour businesses in the Greater Yellowstone region, which help fuel a nature-based economy worth over $1 billion a year.
All the wildlife has economic value. There is big money in bird-watching. Why do people watch birds? Because they don’t have bears! I say this in jest, but there is truth to it. But once people come for bears, they learn about, and want to experience, the birds, towns, culture and people.
Bears pay the bills and support our business, our employees and multiple cooperating businesses. And Montana is uniquely positioned to capitalize on wildlife. No other state has the numbers and diversity of big, romantic and easily visible wild animals.
Consider: On a global scale wildlife is in decline, human population is on the rise, and nature-based tourism is a growth industry.
Now consider: Nature maintains itself. All we have to do to keep this money generating, and quality of life resource, is to leave it alone and work towards coexistence with the very resources people have sacrificed worldwide, including bears.
Finally: Wildlife and wild places are a balm to the soul, and can be a retreat to calm and security in a rapidly changing world, especially during times of crisis like we currently face.
The comeback of grizzly populations in Montana shows the commitment people have towards the bear. And coexistence has come a long way. When I began guiding, “bear spray” wasn’t around, and electric fencing and managing attractants was just starting. These, and other techniques are the easy, and should be, priority investments. Education, habitat protection and “travel corridors” are realms which can ensure bear populations into the future.
Know this: Every time Gov. Steve Bullock's (admirable) Grizzly Advisory Council is mentioned in the news, every time the ESA and grizzly delisting is discussed, the media picks it up and Montana is at the front of the world news cycle. Out in the world, people recognize that the bear lives here. They come with the hope of seeing a bear. They realize they can find some of what the bear needs, some of what they themselves need here.
Maybe they come and don’t see a bear. But they know it’s possible, and they can be confident they will find open country, grand vistas, wildlife of many kinds and a connection with wild nature.
Ken Sinay, with his wife Susi, owns and operates Bozeman-based Yellowstone Safari Company.