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A charging grizzly bear can run at up to 35 mph, but Wednesday’s remote-controlled, adult-sized decoy maxed out at 25 mph.

The faux bear wheeled 30 feet toward the people at Wednesday’s bear safety event as they tried to fire an inert can of bear spray in time. Many failed to grip their canisters, flip off the safety, aim and spray at a downward angle before the decoy got to them.

“You may see (a bear) a long ways away. They may be really close to you,” said Danielle Oyler, the wildlife stewardship outreach specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “The thing to know is that even if you don’t get your bear spray out in time, you can still spray them.”

Oyler led Wednesday’s bear safety event at FWP’s Bozeman office. The department organized the session so people could learn how to handle bear encounters and use bear spray in a safe environment, ahead of any real encounters.

FWP staff set up tables with bear skulls, track casts, fake scat and maps near the bear spray training area. An adult grizzly bear mount towered over two black bear mounts with dark and light coloring.

“Carrying bear spray and knowing how to use it won’t prevent a bear encounter from happening, but it’s something we highly recommend you have because it’s a very effective tool,” Oyler said. “To prevent encounters, just assume that bears are around — whether they are grizzly bears or black bears.”

Darryl Thompson always carries bear spray when he hikes, but so far he’s never had to use it. At Wednesday’s event, he learned how to distinguish between predatory and defensive bear behavior.

“Any experience you can have and practice you can have is beneficial,” he said. “I grew up in Montana, and I’ve always been aware that there may be bears, but this is the first opportunity that I’ve had to have some training and actually fire an inert bear canister.”

Over the past few years, FWP and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee at large have been updating bear education protocol to better reflect the experiences of bear management specialists and the body of science behind bear encounters, Oyler said.

Officials used to train people to assess encounters based on the species of bear, but they’ve found that it’s often difficult to distinguish between black and grizzly bears. People are now being encouraged to act based on bear behavior, which can be defensive or predatory.

People who encounter bears at a distance, without attracting the bear’s attention, should back away slowly and quietly, Oyler said. If a bear is within 25 and 30 feet and is acting threatening, the person should stand their ground and use bear spray immediately.

Defensive bears, which are often protecting food or their young, may “act tough” by bluff charging, slamming their feet on the ground or huffing.

People should stand their ground without backing away when they encounter defensive bears, Oyler said. People should only play dead if a defensive bear makes contact with them or is about to make contact with them.

For bears that display predatory or curious behavior, which is far more rare, the recommendations differ.

Predatory or curious bears often act calm, interested and unstressed. They have often become habituated to people or are young and pushing boundaries.

For encounters with predatory bears, people should use bear spray, stand their ground, yell and act big, scary and dangerous. Those incidents are far more rare and should be reported, especially if they occur around campsites, Oyler said.

“Never play dead with any bear that is predatory or curious,” she said.

Oyler said that bears are usually good at avoiding people, but they sometimes run into trouble because of food and attractants. She urged people to move their garbage cans into sheds or other secure areas overnight and take down bird feeders during the summer, fall and spring months.

Black bears live in most of Montana, and grizzly bears can be seen anywhere in the western half of the state, according to Oyler. That includes the area south of U.S. Interstate 90 near Bozeman.

“If you live in Bozeman, you live in bear country,” she said. “Even if you don’t see them — even if we don’t have it in the news, there’s a bear in Bozeman pretty much every day when they’re not hibernating.”

While no grizzly sightings north of I-90 near Bozeman have been verified of late, it doesn’t mean grizzlies aren’t there, Oyler said. She encouraged people to report any sightings north of I-90 to FWP.

“Grizzly bears are doing pretty well in Montana. Their populations are growing and they are expanding into new places where they haven’t been in a very long time,” she said. “That’s not cause for alarm. We just have to adjust our practices so we don’t have conflicts with them.”

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