CLARK, Wyo. — Three years have passed since Jerry Ruth nearly lost his life in a chance encounter with a grizzly bear while hiking through tall Wyoming sagebrush in a valley near here.
That day, Ruth surprised a sow with three cubs. The encounter was quick, leaving the sow dead and Ruth recovering at a Billings hospital with a broken jaw, a punctured lung and numerous other injuries.
While the story could very well have ended on that hot July day, it did not. The three cubs orphaned in the incident are doing well at the Memphis Zoo, and Ruth, who has recovered from his injuries, is working to make Clark a safer place for grizzlies and people alike.
"I've got a bear-saver trash can ordered for a property I'm taking care of on Line Creek," Ruth said recently. "I'm a little sensitive about that. It's primarily a safety issue."
Looking back on his encounter with the grizzly three years later, Ruth said the bear was only doing what bears do when it attacked in defense of its three cubs. He believes both he and the bear were put into a situation in which neither wanted to be.
While he can't change the past, he said, he can direct the future. Ruth has turned his experience into a public-awareness campaign and is working to help residents of Clark safely coexist with the area's grizzlies by installing one bear-proof trash bin at a time.
"I took the steps to secure that bear bin and put some pamphlets out to help educate people, to make them more bear aware," Ruth said. "Whatever I can do, whether it's public awareness with my situation or installing a bear bin, I'd like to see it happen."
The issue of grizzlies entering the Clark community in search of food scraps has drawn more attention in recent months. Grizzly sightings are up in the area, possibly due to dry conditions in the forest, some experts believe.
Wyoming Game and Fish addressed Park County commissioners in May, asking them to help make Clark less appealing for bears.
While stopping short of asking the county to implement a mandate ordering all Clark residents to have bear-proof containers, the state did push commissioners to explore ways to help residents acquire bear-proof bins.
"The Clark situation is a human safety issue for us," Dusty Lasseter, the Bear Wise community coordinator, told commissioners in May. "Right now, a lot of people don't have bear-proof Dumpsters out there."
Ruth also was looking to address the bear-proof issue at one Clark-area vacation rental. The rental, located up Line Creek, is frequented by out-of-state guests who aren't versed on how to coexist with bears.
Ruth asked the Greater Yellowstone Coalition if it could help. The group, which advocates for land and wildlife across the Yellowstone ecosystem, agreed to purchase a bear-safe container for the property.
"The future of grizzlies here still depends on us — our respect for their role in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, our willingness to live with them, and our ability to implement innovative programs that reduce conflicts," said Barbara Cozzens, Northwest Wyoming director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Cozzens credited grizzly recovery in the state to Wyoming Game and Fish, which also is looking to reduce bear and human conflicts in the Clark area.
But despite the proactive efforts by many, Cozzens said that "based on known mortalities, nearly 85 percent of adult grizzly deaths are caused by conflicts with humans."
"Thankfully, we have citizens like Ruth who are doing their part to show that we can safely coexist with bears," Cozzens said.
While bear-wise efforts in Clark are slowly moving forward, the three cubs orphaned in July 2009 when their mother was killed are doing well at the Memphis Zoo.
Laura Doty, the zoo's communications specialist, said the two male bears, named Yukon and Cochise, now weigh 400 pounds, while the female, Else, weighs 350 pounds.
"They have a waterfall and live fish that can be put into their pond and they can chase them," Doty said. "We recently installed two stone benches, and they can crawl on them or dig around them and use it as a plaything."
Doty said the zoo's Teton Trek display, dedicated to the Yellowstone ecosystem, also includes gray wolves, elk and trumpeter swans. She called the three grizzlies curious bears and said they're far from the shy little cubs the zoo received several years ago.
"They're alive and vivacious," she said. "They're living together. They all go out on exhibit the same days together."
Now that the bears are Tennessee residents, Doty said, they've become the darlings of the Memphis Grizzlies, the state's NBA basketball team.
During the basketball season, Doty said, the bears draw additional visitors, giving the zoo a chance to educate the public on wild grizzlies and their habitat.
"We have a lot of interactive exhibits about Yellowstone and everything that goes on with that," she said. "The lodge was modeled after Yellowstone. We actually have Old Faithful on a timer. It's a lot of fun for families."