Safety procedures detailed as grizzlies become more common in the area
Last updated 5/6/2021 at Noon
The Big Sandy Senior Center hosted a talk by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Bear Management Specialist Wesley Sarmento detailing how to deal with the increasing presence of grizzly bears in the area.
During the last several years, grizzly bears have been expanding out of their recovery zones including to the prairies east of the Rocky Mountain Front, FWP said in a release announcing the meeting.
A pair of grizzly bears recently were spotted about 15 miles northwest of Big Sandy, but have since moved out of the area.
Sarmento said he wanted to hold a talk like this last year, when a grizzly had been seen in the area and killed some chickens at a farm near Big Sandy, but the pandemic necessitated its cancellation.
He explained that, much to his disappointment, grizzly bears are still a federally protected species so FWP doesn’t have the authority to regulate their population or declare hunts on the animals, but he is in charge of keeping people and their property safe, which is the main focus of the meeting.
He said media often depicts bears as man-eaters who will actively attack humans for food, but this is entirely inaccurate, and it is important to understand that most grizzlies do not cause humans any problem, even though the focus of the talk is safety.
“The last time someone in the this ecosystem was killed and eaten by a grizzly bear was over 20 years ago,” he said.
Sarmento said grizzlies are generally shy, secretive, and attack only when they feel threatened. He said preventing an encounter all together is the ideal solution.
“They’re lazy animals, and it takes less energy to hide than it takes to actually confront you,” he said.
He said traveling in groups, being aware of the surroundings and making noise while moving will drive off bears in the area before an encounter even begins, but people in areas where bears are present should ideally have bear spray on them anyway.
He said in the event that someone encounters a bear they should be careful not to startle or agitate them but attempt to calmly leave, and never ever run. Running will trigger their instinct to chase.
Sarmento said a grizzly’s attitude toward someone can often be discerned by observing their body language, which can inform a person’s response. He said if the bear is just eating or digging and otherwise ignoring a person it either hasn’t noticed them or is not threatened by them.
If the bear is looking at them and standing on its hind legs, he said, it’s probably curious and trying to figure out what the person is and if they are a danger to them. Sarmento said female grizzlies are famously protective of their young and people should be especially careful around them.
He said if the bear has its ears back and is stomping or making noise at a person it means they’re agitated and warning them not to mess with them. He also said yawning is a sign of distress and agitation as well.
Sarmento said if a bear is actively following someone, that is predatory behavior, but he said that is extremely rare, and much more common among black bears who are often mistaken for grizzlies.
He said bear spray should be immediately accessible on a person’s belt and if a bear does attempt to charge someone they should angle the spray slightly down so they hit the bear and not overshoot the target. He also said it’s probably good to spray earlier in the charge rather than later to give the aerosol time to disperse and drive the animal away.
Sarmento said guns can also be used against a grizzly if it is charging, but they are far less effective than spray, with nearly 50 percent of encounters involving fire arms resulting in injury either due to the ineffectiveness or people injuring themselves or friends with said firearms during the encounter.
He said a .357 Magnum is the smallest gun that will be remotely effective against a bear because they are very tough animals who are going to take quite a few shots to incapacitate.
He said if someone doesn’t have either a firearm or bear spray they are left with two option, fight or play dead.
Sarmento said playing dead should be the first considered choice because fighting is only advisable if the grizzly is being predatory, which, again, is very unusual outside of the Yellowstone area. He said if people are unsure they should default to playing dead.
He said people trying to play dead should get on the ground stomach down and lock their hands over the back of their neck and stay still until the bear is completely gone otherwise they risk drawing it back.
He said if the bear attempts to roll them over, they should roll with it and get back on their stomach.
Sarmento said grizzlies have an extremely powerful sense of smell and can detect rotten meat from more than two miles away.
He said hunters should be careful with their kills and make noise when approaching them to scare off any bears in the area, and consider using gutless methods to harvest the animal and store the meat high in a tree.
He said bears are also drawn to grain spills, animal feed, bird seed and fruit as well. Sarmento said ag workers should be careful when handling and storing these things so as not to attract the bears and avoid contact altogether.
He said because they are still a federally protected species, they generally cannot be injured unless someone’s life is in danger so it’s best to haze the animals off using electric fences and scare devices, which FWP and some non-profits might be able to construct for people depending on the circumstances.
He said they can also be driven off with loud noises or with a hard-sided vehicle, but anyone can call FWP and they will help.
“If you’ve got a bear, call us, that’s our whole job,” Sarmento said.
He said because they are a protected species and there’s only so much people can legally do to prevent property damage, the state of Montana can compensate people for damages inflicted by the animals so people should document as much as they can while staying safe.
He also said it’s important to report bear sighting to FWP and inform neighbors of the animal’s presence.