By SARAH ROY
The second part of our big camping trip focused mainly on Grizzly bears and wolves and how they fit into the landscape here in Montana. We not only studied the ecology of these animals and their movements, but more importantly we focused in on how these creatures interact with people. In order to get a view into local human relationships with these animals we talked with speakers from extremely varied backgrounds. We started off talking with Jamie Jonkel and a graduate student working with him. Jamie is a bear biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Brittany is a graduate student at Montana State University working with grizzlies and electric fencing. Both Jamie and Brittany talked to all of us about bear management, and human-bear conflicts. He taught us preventative measures, as well as reactionary actions that must be taken when bears get habituated to humans. Things like unprotected trash, bird feeders, chickens (or sheep), and fruit trees can be huge attractants to bears due to their outstanding olfactory capabilities. Jamie works with people to help reduce the attractants around their homes and keep bear-proof trash cans supplied. But what to do about the chickens and sheep? This is where electric fencing comes in. Electric fences are becoming more and more popular here in the Swan for their ability to keep bears away. They provide effective negative conditioning for curious bears, and have been shown to keep bears away from areas where they have been previously shocked. Both Jamie and Brittany work with people on installing these fences, so people and bears can coexist without the temptation.
While on our trip we also talked with Rob Henrekin, a local taxidermist and trapper. Going into this, most of our students did not know what to think. Most of the students had little to no exposure with trapping, and were interested to get Rob’s perspective on things. I don’t know how else to say it: Rob really won all of our hearts. He first explained his business to us, and what it means to him. It is its own art. As we looked around at the perfectly placed paws, the proportionately accurate figures, the deftly posed mountain lion- we saw his skill. He truly has a passion for what he does, and it was felt by all of us. We talked about trapping, and what it means to him. He de-bunked our misconceptions and brought to all of us the genuine and humble perspective of someone who simply has a hobby that he loves. I think we could all relate to this. He talked about the process, the tracking leading up to trapping; it takes a sharp mind and a great respect for the animal. Rob told us his stories of winter trapping, and how his respect for the wolf grew ten-fold as he tried to track them down. It was no easy task, and he quickly realized the amazing wit of these animals. Soon we all realized how much this practice meant to him, and perhaps to others too. It is a tradition for many, and remains to be misunderstood by those who aren’t a part of it. Rob truly opened this entire view to all of us. He shared with us his fondest memories, and for that we are all thankful.
We also had the amazing opportunity to speak with Dusty and Danelle Crary who own a ranch and outfitting business in Choteau. They graciously opened their home to us and even fed us their home-grown beef! (the burgers were delicious to say the least). Words cannot describe how grateful we all are for this experience. As with Rob, many of the students did not have any prior experience talking to ranchers. Meeting with the Crary family changed all of that for all of us. These were normal people, with beautiful personalities and admirable goals. They go to ranching workshops to constantly improve themselves, they are careful about the way they handle their livestock, they care about the genetics, and the temperament of their animals. These were all things that brought a smile to our faces. When talking about wildlife interactions with the ranch, they gave us their honest opinions on depredations and the way they are handled. They shared with us a perspective we would have never gotten otherwise. You see, while it is important to understand ecological concepts, scientific methods, and biological patterns, none of that makes a difference without understanding the perspectives of people.
Conservation can only be successful if our budding scientists understand the full story, all the pieces that make up the whole; without these we would be lost.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to our enlightenment, we will take these lessons with us always as we move forward in the world.