SEELEY LAKE — Being a grizzly bear can be a pain in the neck.
Literally, as Gary Aitken found out on Tuesday while acting as a garbage-seeking griz before a class of rapt Seeley Lake Elementary School first graders. He was part of a skit with Wind River Bear Institute biologists Carrie Hunt and Jessica Reyes demonstrating the kinds of trouble people entice bears into by leaving bird feeders and dog chow unsecured.
“If it wasn’t so heavy, it wouldn’t be so bad,” Aitken said of the grizzly bear skin and skull he wore in his role. “It weighs more than my neck was designed to carry.”
But the bears are a figurative pain in the neck for both biologists and residents of western Montana, where each encounters the other with increasing frequency. Tuesday’s all-day workshop for all elementary grades exposed the school kids to a variety of bear stories, natural histories and even career opportunities in wildlife management.
“These last couple summers we’ve had more human-bear conflicts than ever,” said Seeley Junior High math and science teacher Patti Bartlett. “Our average is 10 or 12 a summer. Two years ago, we had 80.”
Two years ago, Bartlett helped put together a bear-aware art project for the younger students, whose pictures and sculptures of bear safety advice got displayed all over town. That got the parents and neighbors out looking for their children’s artwork, with the side benefit of spreading the word about the town’s bear responsibilities. Bartlett said the influx of newcomers, general economic difficulties and robust bear numbers demanded a wider response.
“Communities change,” Bartlett said. “You get complacent, and you get new people who don’t know the habits of the animals around the community. We live in a really rich habitat, and we need to learn how to co-exist.”
From 2019’s art show, Bartlett and University of Montana graduate student Robert Green evolved the bear day to include grizzly and black bear biology with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear manager Jamie Jonkel, bear management with FWP game warden Sydney Young, and Indigenous bear perspectives with Salish Kootenai College Native American studies expert Tim Ryan. Older students also got science lessons in bear radio collar tracking telemetry and bear encounter tactics, including the use of bear spray.
Ryan’s storytelling sessions braided ancient lore with contemporary resonance. Whether by reflex or design, his recounting of how a spirit grizzly bear helped a young man survive a smallpox outbreak through quarantines and social distancing, Ryan kept saying “COVID” when he meant to say “smallpox.”
“There’s an incredible amount of knowledge kids pass on to their parents,” Bartlett said. “I was in the store when this lady came up to me and said, ‘My grandson made me take my bird feeder down.’”