Collaboration is essential to effectively communicate about bear awareness with people who work, live and recreate in bear country.

That was one key message that came from the Grizzly Bear Outreach and Education Summit, held late January in Helena.

The summit included nearly 100 people who focus much of their professional work on grizzly bear outreach and education in the Northern Rockies, from Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.

The Grizzly Bear Outreach Summit comes at a time when grizzly bear populations are expanding into areas where they haven’t been seen for decades, including the prairies east of the Rocky Mountain Front, areas away from the Beartooth Mountains in south central Montana and within the areas between the Northern Continental Divide and Great Yellowstone ecosystems. These areas of expansion frequently coincide with areas of expanding human populations. Conflicts involving bears and recreationists, residents and agricultural producers are on the rise in many of these areas.

At the same time, grizzly bear recovery in other areas, such as the Cabinet/Yaak, Bitterroot and Selkirk recovery areas has yet to be achieved.

The purpose of the summit, which was hosted by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, was to bring groups and people together and answer key questions: Can we work better together? Can we be more consistent with our efforts and message? Can we expand our efforts with more collaboration?

The answer to all the questions was a firm yes.

“For the better part of three days, we were able to really dig into some of these outreach and education issues and find some ways we can improve grizzly bear outreach and education across the state,” said Greg Lemon, FWP communication and education division administrator.

The summit included a panel discussion with people from around Montana’s grizzly bear country whose unique experiences, professions and insights provided context for the grizzly bear awareness efforts and the groups at the summit.

Questions for the panelists were wide ranging and dealt broadly with what kind of outreach was working and where they identified a need for improvement. The panelists collectively had some similar ideas for more on-the-ground efforts targeted at specific audiences, like livestock producers, recreationists and landowners. They also saw value in some of the traditional outreach efforts focused on encouraging people to secure attractants, use bear spray and general bear awareness.

Following the panel discussion, the summit attendees worked to develop a list of issues that needed to be addressed and that list was winnowed down to seven topic areas including: audience, research, message, partnerships, tools, message vehicles, and enforcement and regulations.

The topics were tackled by small groups, which identified existing problems and recommendations for moving forward.

One group came up with the following statement on the topic of bear safety messages. They identified that with grizzly bear awareness: “Ideally, we would have a main source to be able to find and disseminate information that is composed of consistent and accurate content that reaches all interested parties. This content would need to be engaging, readable and researched-based, while covering broad age-ranges and audiences, and resonates with the audience to make them become more proactive of being bear aware.”

The summit concluded on the third day with a morning discussion about strategies to help remedy the challenges identified in each topic area.

While the summit was the most inclusive effort of its kind yet in Montana, there’s obviously more work to do. Broadly, information and outreach on grizzly bears can be organized under the Interagency Grizzly Bear Council, which is the cross-agency collaborative group that has worked on grizzly bear recovery across recovery zones for nearly 30 years.

Lori Roberts is a grizzly bear researcher with FWP and the current chair of the IGBC information and education subcommittee. She sees value in re-energizing the subcommittee’s efforts around the areas of focus identified by the summit attendees.

“This summit really demonstrated a need for collaboration and a willingness across the state and the region for working together to increase bear awareness and strategies to avoid conflict,” Roberts said. “The work of this summit will set us on a good path, but we all know there’s more to do.”

The work from the summit will be passed along to the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council and the IGBC.