SEELEY LAKE - Grizzly bears have regained a tenuous foothold in the Lower 48 states, but their survival depends on the big bruins finding a way to live with the humans who once nearly exterminated them, wildlife officials said.
Finding that peaceful co-existence was the focus of Friday's meeting of the Intergovernmental Grizzly Bear Committee, the panel of federal and state agencies that oversees management of the threatened grizzly.
The IGBC, which is conducting its summer meeting, will celebrate its 25th anniversary - and the gradual increase in grizzlies' population, range and public acceptance - with a ceremony Saturday at the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area.
"We've come so far in 25 years due to our partnerships (among government agencies) and the support of the public," said Jay Slack, the committee's chairman.
An estimated 50,000 grizzlies once roamed the West, but hunting, poisoning and habitat loss reduced their numbers to about 700 before they were protected by the federal Endangered Species Act in 1975. Today, an estimated 1,200 grizzlies live in the West, nearly all in the Northern Rockies.
Despite the progress, officials said the bear's nascent recovery is threatened by the boom in human population and private land development across the West.
Human conflicts are the leading cause of death among grizzlies, including poaching and other illegal killings, trains, motor vehicles and hunters who misidentify black bears as grizzlies, said Chris Servheen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's grizzly bear recovery coordinator.
But the top cause of death is "management removal," or bears that are killed by wildlife managers because they have become habituated to people after learning to raid garbage cans, cabins, birdfeeders, dog food and other food sources from humans.
"It only takes one or two bad landowners to create conflict bears for everyone else," Servheen said. "Some people like to feed deer and other wildlife, but what they're doing is feeding bears and habituating them to being around people."
In the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which has more grizzlies than any other area, 172 of the bears were known to have been killed by humans over the past decade, although the actual number is likely higher because of illegal killings that are never discovered, Servheen said.
According to research, most grizzlies killed by people are adult male bears seeking human-food sources on private land in September and October when the bears are building up their fat reserves for winter.
The highest human-caused death rate among grizzlies is in the Swan Valley of northwestern Montana, where both the bear and human populations have jumped in recent years.
Wildlife managers, public and private landowners and nonprofit groups have formed a grizzly recovery plan in the Swan, making it a test case for humans and bears to coexist in the continental United States, Servheen said.
The recovery plan restricts logging and road access, and encourages private landowners not to develop property where grizzlies live, forage and pass through. It also urges people to be "bear aware" and remove food sources for bears in the valley bottom, where both grizzlies and humans spend most of their time.
The plan's goals are to maintain "connectivity" - or passageways for grizzlies between the Swan and Mission mountains bordering the valley - and to minimize human risks to the bears.
Of 24 grizzlies monitored in the Swan Valley since 2001, 42 percent have died of human causes, a mortality rate that is "unsustainable," said Servheen.
"The Swan is a mortality sink" for grizzlies, he said. "We often have people settling in the wrong place and then calling us and saying, 'I got a grizzly bear in my yard. What do I do?' We want to tell them to move, but we can't do that, so the question is can we improve our coexistence?"
The IGBC also discussed the shortage of funding for grizzly research and management, which will take an increased amount of money as bear and human populations increase across the West, officials said.
Rick Mace and Tim Manley, bear biologists with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, updated the IGBC about the state's ongoing research with grizzlies and black bears and efforts to reduce human conflicts with bears.
Manley said the FWP captures an average of 15 bears a year in the Flathead Valley, where the population has skyrocketed.
Many new residents unknowingly draw bears - and put them at risk for becoming habituated and killed by wildlife managers - when they leave out garbage and other food attractants, he said.
"We try to put a lot of effort into prevention, so we're able to spend time working with landowners," Manley said. "Some people understand the message and we've seen a lot of cooperation, but we have to go back to some people year after year."
The IGBC also adopted a new bear spray policy that is intended to avoid any public misperception that the committee endorses any commercial product.
Under the new policy, the IGBC's public education materials will only include the logos of its member agencies and nonprofit organizations with which the IGBC has a memorandum of understanding.
Companies that make donations toward the education materials will be credited by name and not by logo.
More information is available at www.IGBConline.org
Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee's 25th anniversary celebration today
Location: Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area, off Highways 200 and 83 near Clearwater Junction
10 a.m. Presentation of colors, information booths, grizzly bear telemetry/guided hike
11:30 a.m. Welcome, introductions, keynote address, presentations
12:30 p.m. Awards ceremony
1:30 p.m. Barbecue lunch