When Lewis and Clark first encountered grizzly bears, there may have been a hundred thousand of them in the American West, from what is now Canada all the way down to Mexico. Grizzlies are among the most fearsome predators on the planet so, for the next 150 years, they were systematically exterminated by settlers, ranchers and farmers who saw them as a threat to their lives and livelihoods. By the 1960s there were just a few hundred left in the lower 48 states.
In 1975, grizzly bears were among the first animals to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. And as we reported last year, what’s happened since – especially in the state of Montana – is a story both of conservation and conflict. Ever been face-to-face with a grizzly? Neither had we.
In the Swan Mountains of northwestern Montana, we’re carrying bear spray and following state bear specialist Erik Wenum and his colleague Milan Vinks deep into the woods.
Wenum’s checking one of several traps – called snares – that he has baited with beaver meat.
Erik Wenum: Oh, there’s a bear. Grizzly bear.
Bill Whitaker: Hear that????
Erik Wenum: The closer we get, the more agitated she’s going to become, so we’ll kind of be quiet– get a good weight assessment on her, and then we’ll just drift right back out, okay?
Bill Whitaker: I’m with you.
Erik Wenum: Alright.
Erik Wenum (speaking to bear): You’re okay. (GROWL) You’re alright, you’re okay, you’re okay. (GROWL & CHARGE) You’re alright. You’re alright.
After the wire snare around its wrist stops the first charge at Wenum, the grizzly makes another effort to get at our cameraman, Don Lee.
Erik Wenum: (GROWL & CHARGE) Yeah, you’re alright. All right, we’ll drift out.
Bill Whitaker: You have an estimate of how big that bear is? How much do you think she weighs?
Erik Wenum: I think it’s right around 300 pounds.
That’s mid-sized for a grizzly. They can weigh as much as a thousand pounds and stand nine feet tall on their hind legs.
Erik Wenum: We’re going to mix a little bit of medetomidine.
Wenum and Vinks mix a cocktail of veterinary sedatives and load them into a dart gun.
Bill Whitaker: You have the dart, I have the bear spray, we’re ready—
Erik Wenum: There you go, we are set.
Vinks carries a shotgun loaded with lethal ammunition, just in case.
Wenum insists that neither the tranquilizer nor the snare do any lasting harm, and that he needs both as part of a project to attach radio collars to grizzlies and track their population’s recovery.
Hilary Cooley: To me, having a grizzly bear population means that the ecosystem is intact.
Hilary Cooley is the wildlife biologist in charge of grizzly bear recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.
Hilary Cooley: Grizzly bears were listed in 1975 as a threatened species in the lower 48 states.
Bill Whitaker: Thought their survival was in jeopardy?
Hilary Cooley: Yeah. Their range had been reduced by about 98%.
Two places grizzlies hadn’t been wiped out were Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, where a few hundred were protected from eradication. So, starting 45 years ago, the recovery effort focused on millions of acres around those two parks.
Hilary Cooley: They’ve probably more than tripled their numbers, and their range now is more than double what it was at the time of listing.
Since listed as an endangered species back in 1975, the grizzly bear population in this region has made a remarkable comeback – a true success story. But at the same time, another population has also been growing around here – the human population – with houses and subdivisions built right next to the wilderness. And that’s often where the trouble starts.
Montana’s human population has grown by 250,000 since grizzlies were protected in 1975. Most of those people live on valley floors or in foothills not far from bear country.
Bryce Andrews: When you can look at the telemetry from their collars, you realize that at night this valley belongs to bears. A bear has walked, I’ve seen the telemetry, through the spot where you and I are sitting right now. And we are within 100 feet of my house.
Bryce Andrews is a rancher, author, and field director for a non-profit called People and Carnivores, which tries to minimize human-bear conflict. He’s seen all the videos of grizzlies going through trash cans, raiding chicken coops and backyard bird-feeders, even the fridge. They are true omnivores, and really hungry from the moment they emerge from hibernation each spring.
Bryce Andrews: Anything with caloric value, a bear will turn it into what they need to survive.
Bill Whitaker: So they will eat any and everything.
Bryce Andrews: Any and everything. They’ll come for bird seed. They’ll come for the residue on a barbecue.
Bill Whitaker: It’s their appetites that get them into trouble with humans.
Bryce Andrews: Absolutely.
The greatest trouble comes when grizzlies go after livestock or crops that ranchers and farmers count on for their livelihood.
Hilary Cooley: Bears can be really hard to live with. They kill livestock. There are producers who have 20, 30 cows a year killed by grizzly bears. And so, for those–
Bill Whitaker: Sounds like a lot.
Hilary Cooley: –folks– it’s a lot. It’s a big impact.
Greg Schock: The bears probably knocked down between 20 and 25% of my corn that I couldn’t harvest every year.
Greg Schock farms in Montana’s Mission Valley. He says grizzlies live in the woods about a mile from his home.
Greg Schock: We had 18, several years in a row in our cornfield and nobody believed that I had that many until they put cameras up and– and actually had footage of them.
Bill Whitaker: Eighteen in your cornfield?
Greg Schock: In a hundred-acre cornfield, yeah.
With so many grizzlies around – now nearly 2,000 – the federal government has considered removing some populations from the endangered species list. So far, court challenges from environmental groups and Native Americans have prevented that.
Bill Whitaker: You think it is possible to coexist?
Greg Schock: I think we have to. If we don’t coexist, what’s– who’s leaving? The bears aren’t leaving and we aren’t leaving. So…
So Bryce Andrews’ organization does things like install high-voltage electric fences around fields like this 30-acre melon farm. Grizzlies are smart enough to “test” the fences, and sometimes even get around them.
Bryce Andrews: We’ve got an electrified gate, here, which is off right now.
Andrews has an electric fence around his backyard chicken coop. But not all of his neighbors do.
Bryce Andrews: Generally, when there are unprotected chickens in grizzly habitat, it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong.
Bill Whitaker: The grizzly bear will win.
Bryce Andrews: They’ll win, and see, they have these phenomenal noses. They smell everything.
Including neighborhood trash cans. If a grizzly develops a taste for garbage, gets accustomed to being near people, and then teaches those bad habits to her cubs, it can prove fatal.
Bears that get into such trouble are often trapped by state bear managers. At first, they’re relocated to remote regions and released. But if they keep coming back, federal official Hilary Cooley may need to authorize killing them.
Hilary Cooley: Ultimately, that’s my decision.
Bill Whitaker: What’s that like?
Hilary Cooley: It’s the worst part of the job. It’s– but it’s necessary.
Bill Whitaker: Why “necessary”?
Hilary Cooley: If we think it’s a threat to human safety, for example a food-conditioned bear, bears can kill people. And it’s something we don’t mess with. If there’s a threat to human safety, we remove it right off the bat.
Bill Whitaker: And remove, you–
Hilary Cooley: Euthanize.
Bill Whitaker: Euthanize.
She had to authorize the killing of nearly 50 grizzlies in 2019. Just last year, she had to authorize the killing of nearly 50 grizzlies. The grizzly bear we saw Erik Wenum tranquilize in the swan mountains may never have seen a human being before, let alone gotten into trouble.
Bill Whitaker: Do you know, is it a male or a female?
Erik Wenum: I don’t yet.
Bill Whitaker: How long will this grizzly be out?
Erik Wenum: About an hour and– 20 minutes–
Bill Whitaker: About an hour.
Erik Wenum: Argh!
Milan Vinks: It’s a male.
Bill Whitaker: Why, why were you hoping for a female?
Erik Wenum: We want to radio collar females. Females drive the system. They– they really do.
Bill Whitaker: Will you collar him?
Erik Wenum: We collar some males. We’re not gonna collar this guy though.
Bill Whitaker: Boy, look at those claws.
The forest becomes a field hospital as they attach monitors and even an oxygen bottle to the grizzly.
Erik Wenum: So he’s at 88% oxygen. I like it when it’s 90– 95, so I want to get him up.
We measured every part of the bear. Blood is drawn, tufts of hair pulled for DNA analysis.
Erik Wenum: I’m gonna call him a 5-year-old bear, okay? So you can see these are his incisors, and if you run your fingernail over the top, you can still feel some cusping.
Bill Whitaker: Tell me I can do this? Stick my hand in a grizzly bear’s mouth.
Erik Wenum: I’m tellin’ you you can do that.
Bill Whitaker: Oh yeah. How about that.
Less than an hour after being darted – a bit ahead of schedule – the grizzly starts to stir.
Bill Whitaker: So he’s starting to wake up–
Erik Wenum: Okay. Everybody we’re ready to go. You guys head on out. Everybody go.
We didn’t need to be told again. As we hustled out, Wenum removed the hood from the bear’s head, and hurried out himself.
Erik Wenum: Your first question’ll be, “Does that happen often?” (LAUGHTER)
Bill Whitaker: Yeah, when he was sniffing up, that was time to go–
Erik Wenum: When he was lifting his head, it’s time to go.
Bill Whitaker: It’s time to go.
We had about as safe an encounter with a grizzly bear as is possible to have. But with more people going deep into bear country – to hike or bike or camp or hunt – there are several decidedly unsafe encounters every year.
Anders Broste: I didn’t really get a warning, and– all of a sudden there’s a grizzly bear running at me. And in about probably less than a second– it was on me.
Anders Broste was hunting for deer and elk with a friend in the wilderness north of his Montana home on November 11, 2018, when he stumbled upon a grizzly who’d been dozing in the snow.
Anders Broste: It bit my arm here, kinda thrashed it around. And then bit my leg here. Started pulling on me and kind of tossing me around. And then it just dropped my foot and ran off.
Bill Whitaker: Do you have any idea why he didn’t just finish you off or drag you off?
Anders Broste: Nope.
Broste’s hunting partner Dan reached him within a minute or two. Luckily, they had a cellphone signal to call 911. State bear specialist Erik Wenum was one of the first responders on the scene, and he snapped a photo of a very large pawprint in the snow.
Bill Whitaker: They had to chopper you out?
Anders Broste: Two choppers.
Bill Whitaker: How long were you in the hospital?
Anders Broste: I was in the hospital for six days. In that six days, I had three different surgeries. My arm was broken, my thumb was broken, and my hand was dislocated. My foot was basically held to my, my ankle with soft tissue.
This is the grizzly that attacked Anders Broste, in a photo taken four years earlier when state bear managers trapped and released him. DNA samples proved the match.
Bill Whitaker: So– the bear that attacked you is still out there.
Anders Broste: Yep.
Bill Whitaker: Does that bother you? You okay with that?
Anders Broste: I’m okay with it. I was intruding. So, to me, the bear’s response was not any more inappropriate than what somebody else’s response would be if I trespassed into their home.
Broste, who’s the co-founder of a company that makes mountain bikes, is back on his, after many months of tough rehab. And he says he and his friend Dan plan to go hunting again this November 11th, the anniversary of the attack.
Anders Broste: I think it’s part of what makes Montana wild. If we didn’t have grizzly bears, like, it’d be a little less wild. They’re a part of our ecosystem. They play a role in everything that’s going on around here. And I think that’s kind of cool. I’d– I’d prefer not to see one that close again though. (LAUGH)
Two people have been killed by grizzlies in Montana so far this year, a man attacked in April while fishing and, just last month, a woman who was pulled out of her tent by a bear. Both grizzlies were found and killed by authorities.
Produced by Rome Hartman. Associate producer, Sara Kuzmarov. Broadcast associate, Emilio Almonte. Edited by Michael Mongulla.