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A grizzly bear at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center just outside Yellowstone National Park in West Yellowstone, Mont. (File photo) Image Credit: Washington Post

A woman was found dead in Montana after she encountered a grizzly bear on a trail near Yellowstone National Park, officials said.

The victim was discovered on a trail near West Yellowstone, Mont., in the Custer Gallatin National Forest, on Saturday "following an apparent bear encounter," according to a statement Sunday from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Officials say grizzly bear tracks were at the scene where they found the woman, who has not been publicly identified, on the Buttermilk Trail. The trail is located about a mile west of the national park.

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In response to the visitor's death, officials with the Custer Gallatin National Forest, which is part of the Yellowstone ecosystem, issued an emergency closure order in some areas of West Yellowstone because of "human/bear safety conditions." Several roads and trails are closed until Aug. 25 because of bear activity, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

"The purpose of this Order is to protect public health and safety from unsafe conditions resulting from bear activity in the area," officials wrote.

While forest officials acknowledged that the visitor died after coming into contact with a bear, her cause of death had not been confirmed as of Monday morning. It's unclear how close the woman was to the bear during the encounter. The National Park Service recommends that people "keep at least 100 yards away from bears at all times and never approach a bear to take a photo."

Spokespeople with Custer Gallatin National Forest, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Yellowstone National Park did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The woman's death following a grizzly bear encounter comes days after an Arizona woman visiting Yellowstone was gored by a bison as she was walking away from the animal. The goring, which left Amber Harris, 47, with significant injuries to her chest and abdomen, was the first incident of its kind at Yellowstone in 2023, following several events that made headlines last year for visitors being attacked for being too close to the bison.

The estimated grizzly bear population has increased inside the Yellowstone ecosystem in recent years. It rose from 136 in 1975 to a peak of 1,063 in 2021, according to the National Park Service. A federally protected species of brown bear that once roamed large swaths of the mountains and prairies of the American West, the grizzly bear now remains in a few isolated locations in the Lower 48 states, including Yellowstone.

The grizzly bear population has "expanded in abundance and distribution in Montana in recent years," which has proved to be a challenge for residents, according to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"This [expansion] enhances the long-term prospects for population sustainability by increasing the likelihood of connectivity between recovery zones," the department said on its website. "However, because grizzly bears can damage property and injure people, their closer proximity to human habitation poses new challenges for Montanans."

Even with the increased population, grizzly bears are still faced with danger. A grizzly bear in Wyoming was found dead near Yellowstone in May in a case that sparked outrage among bear watchers and environmental activists concerned about how the animal was found with a disfigured face. The case remains under investigation by federal and state officials.

Grizzly bears can weigh anywhere between 200 to 700 pounds and adults are about 3.5 feet at the shoulder when standing on all fours, according to the Park Service. The bears can climb trees, swim and run up and downhill up to 40 mph. They are typically larger and have a "much more aggressive behavior" than black bears, the Park Service says.

While bear attacks at Yellowstone are rare, the park averages about one bear attack a year, officials say. Eight people have been killed in bear attacks at Yellowstone since the national park was established in 1872, data shows. Three visitors were killed by grizzly bears inside the park in separate incidents in 2011 and 2015. More than 40 people have been injured in bear attacks since 1979, the park says.

"More people have died by drowning or suffering thermal burns from hot springs than aggressive bears," the Park Service said. "For all park visitors combined, the chances of being injured by a grizzly bear are approximately 1 in 2.7 million visits. The risk is significantly lower for people who don't leave developed areas or roadsides, and higher for anyone hiking in the backcountry."

Before the woman was found dead on Saturday, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks had recently confirmed sightings of grizzly bears that hadn't been seen in some places in years, "and in some cases more than a century."

"Vigilance is important for those who live and recreate in the outdoors," Quentin Kujala, chief of conservation policy for the department, said in a July 17 news release. "This is a busy time of year for bears and our field staff are responding to calls in these particular areas and across the state."

Since all of Yellowstone is considered bear territory, the Park Service says there are tips visitors can follow in a place where "your safety cannot be guaranteed."

In addition to keeping at least 100 yards away from a grizzly bear and not taking photos of the animal, park officials urge visitors to never feed bears and to honk your horn and drive away to discourage a bear from approaching or touching your car. Officials have also recommended that people make noise to scare a bear away and carry bear spray, a nonlethal deterrent used to stop aggressive behavior in the animals that's been proven to "reduce human injuries caused by bears and the number of bears killed by people in self-defense."

The Montana agency recently reiterated arguably its most important piece of advice: "Don't approach a bear."