Kerry Gunther isn’t sure whether the National Park Service has been good or lucky when it comes to grizzly bears.
Since the early 1980s, when Gunther, Yellowsone’s bear manager, began studying bear-human conflicts in the park it has averaged one bear-caused injury annually. This year grizzly bears killed two hikers.
Gunther and park officials are taking another look at what can only be called a remarkably successful program in light of this year’s deaths.
“We definitely have more bears and more people living in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem,” he said. “We definitely have a lot more people recreating in Yellowstone, over 3 million people. A lot more people, combined with more bears mean more encounters.”
When Gunther, a graduate of Northland College like me, came to Yellowstone 30 years ago the population was estimated in and around the park at 200 bears, if that. Today, biologists are confident there are more than 600.
“When I started working here if you saw a dozen bears in a summer you thought it was a good summer for bears,” he said. “I can see a dozen bears in a morning easy now.”
Keeping tabs on bears, keeping camps and developments sanitized so bears can’t get human food, and strong education programs are at the heart of Yellowstone’s program. A study done this year showed that backpackers get it, and most carry bear spray into the backcountry.
But only 16 percent of casual hikers, like the two who were killed, carry bear spray.
Those are the main target of their efforts to reduce conflicts, Gunther said. But they have other tools. Park officials already closed areas of high bear use seasonally.
They might divert some trails out of high bear use areas entirely. They are talking about encouraging people to travel only in groups into the backcountry.
These issues are important for Idahoans, among the most frequent Idaho visitors. It is also only a matter of time until they have moved into central Idaho.