Be Bear Aware, Take Care

Grizzly bear in the Elkhorns Bear on a trail bear close up bear at a campground

Bear Information

The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is home to both black and grizzly bears, and provides important habitat for bears and other wildlife to use throughout the year. Learning about bears will help you become a more knowledgeable visitor to the forest, and will help keep both you and bears safe while sharing the woods.

Be sure to check out the latest on the Forest's Food Storage Orders in the section below and also our Visitor's Guide to Storing Food & Attractants in Bear Country in Montana.


Although black bears and grizzly bears have many things in common, it helps to know your bears.  Remember that color is not a good identifying characteristic, because many black bears in Montana are brown or even blonde, and grizzlies can be nearly black.

Bear I.D. Card

While the Rocky Mountain and Lincoln Ranger Districts are in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) for grizzly bears, the remainder of the Forest provides opportunities for grizzly bears to move between the NCDE and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems and to disperse to new areas. Grizzly bear sightings have been increasing in recent years and we’d like to know if you’ve seen grizzly bears or evidence of grizzly bear presence while out enjoying the forest. The information you provide through the Bear Sighting form will be used by wildlife biologists to better understand grizzly bear distribution across the Forest. These data are for informational purposes only and will not lead to any bear-specific management changes, since that is the responsibility of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; it will serve as informational data for biologists as they analyze and study areas across the forest for project development and habitat management.

The Grizzly Bear Expansion Map illustrates where grizzly bears are now, and where they're moving throughout Montana.

Bear Sign

Grizzly Bear TrackPhoto: Grizzly bear track found in the Arrastra Creek area, Helena Ranger District.

Knowing how to look for and identify bear sign can help remind you that you’re in bear habitat, and to be alert for their presence. Some things to look out for are:

  • Tracks—Bear tracks can appear with four or five toes, and sometimes claw marks are evident in the track.

  • Scat—Bear scat looks similar in shape to dog scat, although a bear’s scat changes based what it has been eating at any given time. Bears often pass entire berries, plant parts, etc., that appear un-digested in their scat.

  • Claw marks—Both black and grizzly bears leave claw marks on trees when they are scent marking or climbing to safety.

  • Digging – Bears dig for ground squirrels or plant roots, and often rip apart rotting stumps and logs in search of insects to eat.


Bear Behavior

Bears will generally avoid humans if they can; often a bear will leave an area without humans ever knowing they were there, thus avoiding potential encounters. There are some situations, however, that may cause bears to react to humans, sometimes in an aggressive manner. Those situations may occur when a bear is:

  • surprised by unexpected human presence

  • protecting her cubs

  • defending a food source

  • habituated to humans or conditioned to human foods, garbage, or other attractants

Bears are intelligent, curious, and have excellent memories, especially when it comes to food sources. Bears have 5-7 months to gain enough weight to sustain them through hibernation in winter. This means they are highly focused on finding and consuming food. Once a bear has associated a place or item with food, it is likely to return or to seek out similar situations in the hopes of finding more. Some bears may actively defend concentrated or high-value food sources, such as carcasses or localized berry patches. In the fall, when food sources become scarce and time for hibernation nears, bears may feed for as much as 20 hours a day. At that time of year bears may be more aggressive in defending food sources, and may also pay less attention to their surroundings, including to the presence of humans in an area. In some parts of Montana, bears have learned to seek out and feed on game carcasses and gut piles left by hunters.

Bears upright

Bears communicate differently than we do. Knowing what a bear is trying to tell you can make you safer in any encounter with a bear. A few key bear behaviors to know:

  • Averted eyes/face: a bear will avoid looking directly at you, signaling that it is trying to avoid direct confrontation. Doing the same thing tells the bear that you, too, wish to avoid conflict.

  • Tooth clacking, jaw popping, and huffing: these noises indicate that a bear is stressed by your presence. These noises are sometimes used where visibility is poor.

  • Standing: a standing bear is not charging, but is instead attempting to get a better look at you or its surroundings or is making sure to be seen

  • Bluff charge: A bear may run toward you, sometimes in a stiff-legged fashion, ears erect (not laid back as in an attack), and then veer off before making contact. This behavior is to get you to leave the area.

  • Black bears may be more likely to flee an encounter, or climb a tree. Grizzly bears may be more likely to react with aggression to the unexpected or unwelcome presence of a human.

How to Stay Safe in Bear Country

Cooking & Storing Food

Animals—not just bears—are attracted to food and food odors.

  • Don’t leave food or garbage unattended, and be sure to properly store your food, garbage, pet/livestock food in a bear-resistant manner.

  • Don’t burn or leave scraps or leftovers in your campfire.

  • Food preparation—animals don’t mind eating uncooked meat or food, so be sure to properly store your food until you cook it.

  • KNOW the local food storage requirements. Different areas of the Forest are covered by different requirements —Know before you go!

Food Storage Image


While enjoying the backcountry and Wilderness areas of the forest, visitors will likely want to become familiar with how to hang food—unless you’re able to pack in a certified bear-resistant cooler. Here’s a video that talks about some bear-safe tips while enjoying the backcountry.

HLC’s Food Storage Orders

For nearly 20 years, the Lincoln and Rocky Mountain Ranger Districts have been under the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) Food Storage Order. These food storage orders remain in-place and unchanged since 2010. All requirements found within these orders cover these two Ranger Districts in their entireties.

The Lincoln RD Lands South of Hwy 200 Food Storage Order  was signed in 2005 and is for areas south of Highway 200 on the Lincoln Ranger District.

Two new food storage orders have been signed to cover the rest of the HLC National Forest. The Crazy Mountain Food Storage Order covers the HLC's portion of the Crazy Mountains. This order mirrors the food storage order that is already in-place on the Custer-Gallatin National Forest's portion of the mountain range; therefore, the requirements listed within this order apply no matter where you are within the Crazy Mountains.

The remaining areas of the HLC--including the Belt Creek-White Sulphur Springs, Helena, Judith-Musselshell, and Townsend Ranger Districts are all covered under the HLC [Remaining Areas] Food Storage Order. This order includes the Elkhorn Mountains, of which management is shared between the HLC and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest (B-DNF). The B-DNF plans to update its food storage order to mirror this one, to ensure that requirements are the same regardless of forest boundaries.

Feel free to print a copy of our Visitor's Guide to Storing Food & Attractants in Bear Country brochure to take with you. If you have questions about the new orders, contact your local Forest Service office.

Grizzly Bear on HLC




  • Hike in groups of 3 or more people, and make noise along the way. You don’t want to surprise a bear!

  • If you see a bear ahead of you, give the bear its space and hike a different trail that day.

  • Know your surroundings. Look for signs of bears.

  • Carry bear spray, keep it accessible, and know how to use it.

  • Never run from a bear! Back away slowly while facing the bear.





  • Never keep food, garbage, or other odorous items (e.g., toothpaste, perfume, pet food, etc.) in your tent! *Food storage orders have specific requirements about management of food, garbage and other attractants; be sure to know what order covers the area where you’re camping.

  • Never feed bears (or other wildlife)!

  • Keep a clean camp.

  • Don’t leave food unattended; always store your food in a bear resistant manner.



  • Carry bear spray, keep it accessible, and know how to use it.

  • Field dress and remove the carcass as soon as possible. The longer the carcass is in the woods, the more likely it will attract a bear.*Specifics are outlined in local food storage orders!

  • Upon your return to a carcass, make noise and approach the area slowly, with bear spray ready.

  • Never attempt to take a carcass from a bear that has ‘claimed’ it!

How to Hunt Safely in Grizzly Country - This brochure, produced by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, provides some important safety reminders and tips on how to remain safe in bear country while out enjoying Montana's wild lands.


Bear Spray

Decades of experience in Alaska, Canada, and the western U.S. has demonstrated that bear spray is a more effective deterrent of bear attacks than firearms. The key is knowing how to use bear spray, and keeping it where you can reach it at a second’s notice.

What You Should Know About Bear Spray is a comprehensive brochure with information and educational tidbits for anyone who wants to refresh their memory on how to accurately and safely use their bear spray!



Where to Find More Information

US Forest Service

Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee   

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks   

Glacier National Park    

Yellowstone National Park   

Flathead National Forest 

Western Wildlife Outreach