POWELL — The past 12 months have been tough for Dusty Lasseter. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of his efforts at a critical time in the grizzly bear education business.
Between the record number of visitors to Yellowstone National Park in the final two months of 2020 and the recent upswing in interest in outdoor activities sparked by the pandemic, 2021 could be yet another record year for tourism in northwest Wyoming. At the same time, officials in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho report grizzly populations that are continuing to grow and expand outside what is considered suitable habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“I think the toughest thing with COVID was not having face-to-face interaction and presentations with the public,” said Lasseter, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Bear Wise education coordinator.
The program typically reaches thousands, teaching both residents and visitors the importance of learning to safely live and recreate in grizzly bear habitat.
“It really limited our ability to give presentations to the public and host groups of people,” he said. “Even our one-on-one interactions at a booth in an event — those were all just canceled.”
Education has proven to be an important tool in grizzly conflict mitigation. Statistics show positive changes over time — especially on private property. There was a time when the highest percentage of conflicts were due to unsecured attractants. Lasseter helped lead the charge to make landowners and residents aware of the issue and now it’s barely a blip on the radar. Of the 208 conflicts reported by Wyoming officials last year, only two came from unsecured attractants.
Yet, while the lessons are effective with residents, reaching the increasing wave of tourists flocking to the area is difficult. One example can be seen at Yellowstone. A recent survey showed only 19 percent of individual day hikers carry bear spray and 44% travel in groups of two or more. At the same time, surveys of those who travel deeper into the back country — which requires a permit and gives officials opportunities to provide education — showed 64 percent of individuals carried bear spray and 84 percent of groups had at least one can.
With expansion of the species’ footprint in the ecosystem — both in immediate areas and recently in population bases such as Red Lodge, Montana — education is increasingly important. Montana’s 10-year average for conflicts is 81, but the state recorded 101 conflicts in 2020. About 20 percent of those conflicts were well outside the boundaries of suitable habitat known as the Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA) in the Beartooth Mountain range near Red Lodge. Conflict areas are expanding in Wyoming as well, said Game and Fish large carnivore section supervisor Dan Thompson.
“We have a lot more people using (grizzly bear) habitat that aren’t used to recreating in those areas,” he said Thursday at the virtual spring meeting of the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee (YES) of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. It’s a group tasked with conservation efforts for the species inside the DMA.
“We have an area the size of the state of New Jersey occupied outside what we consider suitable habitat for grizzly bears right now,” Thompson said. “So that obviously increases that chance for conflict.”
Education is important in these areas, he said. About 50% of all conflicts reported last year happened on private property. The department has been working for decades to work with landowners, expanding educational programs into new areas as the species’ footprint expands.
But last year the department was forced to improvise and adapt. Giveaways of free bear spray moved from in-person handouts to non-contact drive-thrus. Lessons normally presented in person were translated to social media posts and online projects. And the Game and Fish is working closer with non-government organizations to present education to groups likely to see conflicts, such as area hunters.
In one project, the department teamed up with the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association (WYOGA) to produce a new video aimed at educating back country hunters. The video, scheduled to debut this week, attempts to teach grizzly bear behavior so hunters know how to best avoid and mitigate conflicts.
“It’s hopefully a template for the future. It’s really well done and something we’re going to also be using as we move forward,” Thompson said.
Park County Commissioner Lee Livingston, who also sits on the board of directors at WYOGA, said the project is being tweaked before its release. He’s hopeful the video will decrease the danger back country recreationalists face in grizzly habitat and result in less mortality for the species.
Lasseter, who appears in WYOGA’s video, said changes made during this past year will continue in future educational efforts.
“We’re really focusing on providing more video material for folks so they can [view educational content] from the comfort of their home,” he said, adding, “COVID really changed my mindset on how important it is to show people their behavior because people have so few interactions with bears on the landscape. There’s just a ton of value in teaching people bear behavior in videos.”
The availability of online educational content may help get the word out to visitors as well, he said. “A lot of people will be searching for resources before they get here. They’ll be looking at videos online and, hopefully, we can direct them to our Bear Wise information on the Game and Fish site.”
Game and Fish is also expanding bear spray giveaways into other communities this coming summer, including in Lander, Dubois and Jackson. And, with continued success in vaccinations, Lasseter hopes to once again be able to get back to in-person training.