by Marina Richie
The grizzly rolls toward five people pointing training (inert) bear spray canisters at the bear. They press their triggers down for two full seconds, while onlookers cheer them on. Danielle Oyler is pleased.
“Most people follow directions and spray the two seconds and then stop,” she says. “Some do discharge the whole can, and I’ve had one adult and one kid run from the bear. That shows that even with a pretend bear, it’s so important to practice to overcome those instincts.”
Oyler serves in a two-year pilot program. The program establishes Oyler as the first Southwest Montana Bear Education Coordinator. The “charging bear” is a plush model grizzly that has become a popular feature of the growing outreach program in the Yellowstone region.
An impressive consortium, the Southwest Montana Bear Education Working Group, came together to create and raise support for a Coordinator position: Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Custer-Gallatin National Forest, Wildlife Conservation Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife Management Institute, and People and Carnivores. Montana’s Outdoor Legacy Foundation, the Cinnabar Foundation, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Vital Ground Foundation have also provided essential funding to support the bear education program.
Oyler’s position requires both coordination skills and outstanding educational abilities with the public. Her tasks include training and overseeing three Forest Service “Bear Aware” seasonal bear rangers in Gardiner, Red Lodge, and West Yellowstone. On request, she also offers bear awareness programs to schools and to personnel from southwest Montana businesses and agencies. Four months into the job, she’s receiving high praise from the partners.
“You have to get a strong, motivated person for the position and that’s what Danielle is,” says Jodie Canfield, wildlife program manager for the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. “She has a nice, calm approach and does a great job. And she takes a lot of work off my back.”
An example of Oyler’s “can do” spirit is the mounted bear that’s part of a traveling education trailer originally donated to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks by CounterAssault (bear spray company) and then outfitted with help from the U.S. Forest Service.
“The mechanism for the charging bear doesn’t always work,” Canfield says. “So, Danielle built a pallet with wheels on it, put a large stuffed bear on it and added a rope. She sets the bear on a downhill incline, holds the rope, and shoves it toward people holding canisters of inert bear spray.”
Oyler comes with impressive credentials as a naturalist guide with a degree in environmental studies and minor in wildlife biology from the University of Montana. Working for Yellowstone National Park as an interpretive ranger, she managed bear jams in the front county and led backcountry hikes. She moved on to lead multi-day seminars and wildlife watching programs for the nonprofit Yellowstone Association.
“Danielle is organized, easy to work with, and a great selection,” says Laurie Wolf, Montana Wild director for Montana, Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
The timing couldn’t be better for stepping up bear education, as grizzly bear populations recover in both the greater Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide ecosystems, she stresses. Some communities haven’t seen grizzlies for 100 years, so coexisting with bears is brand new. In the Yellowstone Region, the education program grew from reaching 900 people in 2006 to over 11,000 in 2015.
“In the long term, we need to go beyond reducing bear conflicts to building social acceptance of bears,” Wolf says. That takes a focused, well-planned, and creative approach that a coordinator brings.
Kris Inman of the Wildlife Conservation Society says that Oyler is well on her way to meeting three key needs: a longer season for outreach, consistent messaging, and building a dedicated education program that keeps the message fresh and people engaged.
Inman, a black bear researcher by training, worked with Canfield and others to create Bear Smart Big Sky. They initiated the program in 2013 to address both grizzly and black bear problems in the Big Sky resort community, where second home owners often did not secure barbecues, trash, or understand how to be safe in bear country. The success of that effort coupled with the growing bear steward program under the leadership of Forest Service wildlife biologist Jenna Roose led to the concept of a southwest Montana bear education coordinator.
“My ultimate goal and the work we do with conflict resolution at the Wildlife Conservation Society is to see people move toward consciously taking actions on behalf of bears and then it becomes part of their lives,” Inman says.
Would this model position work in other areas where people need to learn how to act and live around grizzly or black bears, or both? Inman, Wolf and Canfield all say yes.
Canfield stresses that partnership positions are essential today, when budgets are going down in federal agencies, while public demand rises.
“The most important part of the position is that it is an interagency and nonprofit partnership,” Canfield says. “It takes partnership, dedication, and willingness to let go of your own ownership.”
She adds that choosing Oyler with her skills and spirited attitude made a big difference. To attract more candidates like her requires taking the next steps toward creating dedicated position with long-term, committed funding.
Wolf is so pleased with the Southwest Montana Bear Education Coordinator, she would like to see a similar position established on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, before growing concerns about bears become a problem.
The value of a coordinator when it comes to bear education in communities is particularly important, because messaging can be so confusing to the public, Inman adds.
Already, Oyler is keeping track of what works most effectively in training as well as in her presentations. She aims to reach the people who need bear education most, like bow hunters and people with second homes in prime bear country. A county fair, for example, offers good information, but fairgoers may not be at the highest risk for bear encounters. In contrast, a presentation at Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge to employees, range riders, and ranchers zeroed in on people who are outside in grizzly country every day.
“I want our efforts to be as impactful as possible,” Oyler says. “Who is most at risk for having a negative bear encounter and how do we talk to these people?