Not many years ago when Brittani Rosas worked to help people in the Blackfoot Valley find ways to coexist with grizzly bears, they would often tell her there weren’t any grizzly bears there a decade earlier.
“I thought then that it was crazy that in a span of 10 years that grizzlies were everywhere in the Blackfoot,” Rosas said.
It’s a story that’s been repeated in many communities across Montana as grizzly bears continue to expand their ranges. And it’s a reality the new People and Carnivore’s Bitterroot conflict prevention coordinator wants Ravalli County residents to be prepared to address.
“We know that grizzlies are coming,” she said. “We don’t want anyone to be caught off guard. We have a prime opportunity here in the Bitterroot to get ahead of it before it really begins.”
The Bitterroot native started her job in July with the organization that’s spent the last 30 years providing people the tools they need to stay safe and protect their livelihoods while reducing the kinds of conflicts that end up with a dead bear, wolf or mountain lion.
“We like carnivores but we like people too,” Rosas said. “We just want to see them coexist. When grizzly bears get there, it will be a huge learning curve for everyone. We want to invest in that education before it happens.”
One of Rosas’ first projects this summer was helping a small community in the Moose Creek area northeast of Sula on the Bitterroot-Deerlodge National Forest side of the divide. A grizzly bear broke into a barn going after livestock feed and that put people on alert.
A Forest Service employee met with members of the homeowners association after the bear showed up. That person took names of residents interested in bear-resistant trash cans. Rosas and a People and Carnivores colleague delivered the trash cans and showed people how to use them. They also completed a risk assessment on several residents' properties and showed them how to reduce the potential for attracting a bear.
“Moose Lake is a hop, skip and a jump down to the Bitterroot in a bear’s terms,” she said.
There have been several grizzly bear sightings on the east side of the valley over the last few years. With Carrie Hunt’s Wind River Bear Institute taking a lead role in working with people impacted by black bears on the west side of the Bitterroot, Rosas plans to focus her efforts on the other side of the valley.
“A lot of people are working on the west side to address the bear issue,” Rosas said. “My focus is going to be on the east side because that’s where grizzly bears will most likely come through … Sula is kind of a bottleneck where bears could pretty easily cross the highway and get into the Frank Church or Selway wilderness areas.”
Longtime bear biologist Hunt — who is well known internationally for her work with Karelian bear dogs — said Rosas is a great addition to the team of people working to educate Bitterroot Valley residents about black bears and grizzlies.
“There is plenty of work to go around,” Hunt said “We are trying to work in concert to create buffer zones in the Bitterroot Valley in preparation for grizzly bear expansion.”
Rosas is still working out the details on the role that People and Carnivores will play in the valley. Her initial focus may be reaching out to subdivision homeowner associations.
“There are so many new people coming to this valley,” Rosas said. “A lot of them are moving into subdivisions, which all have HOAs. Since People and Carnivores is a small organization, we do what we can to maximize our effectiveness. Targeting a whole subdivision may be one way to do that.”
“I know that in this valley you have to be deliberate,” Rosas said. “People don’t like being told what to do. I’m kind of waiting for people to come to me. I’ll help in whatever capacity that I can.”
“We are a boots-on-the-ground kind of organization,” she said. “We give people the resources they need to avoid conflicts with large carnivores. We try to help carnivores keep moving, remain wild and be able to connect with one another while working to protect people’s livelihoods.”
A good example of that occurred a couple of years ago when People and Carnivores deployed an electric fence design that came out of Rosas’ graduate study to protect a cornfield near St. Ignatius that was being raided regularly by grizzly bears.
“Grizzly bears are such opportunistic animals,” Rosas said. “They will eat anything. It was nice that People and Carnivores could take what I learned from my study in the Blackfoot and see it used effectively in a real-life situation to be able to help a farmer protect his crop.”
Electricity is just one tool of many. Rosas said the organization can help cost-share guardian dogs. She can offer information on how to secure food in the backcountry and properly use bear spray.
“At this point, anyone can expect to see a grizzly bear anywhere in western Montana,” Rosas said. “I always tell them that they need to carry bear spray and know how to use it. Education will be a huge part of my job here.”
If people are having problems with wolves, they can put up fladry fences that have helped protect livestock. And they can offer co-existence tool kit bins that include motion-sensor controlled strobe lights and foghorns.
“We want to help people know what to do,” Rosas said “We don’t want them to be scared. We don’t want them to be unprepared. It’s really simple to prevent conflicts on your property.”
If people are already having issues with black bears, it could be just a matter of time before grizzly bears show up.
“A black bear issue will be a grizzly bear issue,” she said. “Grizzlies like birdseed too. They like hummingbird feeders. They’ll drink them like Coke cans. They love trash. They love dog food. If you have a black bear issue, you potentially have a grizzly bear issue. You just don’t know when that will be.”
“There are a lot of grizzly bears doing their walkabout looking to expand their ranges,” Rosas said. “We want that to happen. We want the connectivity between the bear populations in Yellowstone and Glacier. We need that genetic diversity in those populations. The Bitterroot and high divide are areas between those two recovery zones.
“The reason Montana is so spectacular is that we still have all these animals still out on the landscape,” she said. “Montana is still wild in some aspects. You don’t see that anywhere else in the U.S., except Alaska.”