A Sow Goes to Summer School

By Beacon Staff

In California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, cagey black bears rip down hanging backpacker food bags and tear out car windows to steal coolers. But not in Glacier Park, where the densest population of Northwest Montana grizzly bears reside.

Sierra bears aren’t smarter than Glacier bears; they’ve learned these behaviors. “We wouldn’t tolerate that behavior here,” says John Waller, carnivore biologist in Glacier National Park. “It’s a positive, proactive thing to break the cycle before something happens to the bear or someone gets hurt.”

In one several-year project north of Two Medicine, Glacier bear managers have taught a bear to change her behavior. Known as the Old Man Lake Bear, the brown-legged blond grizzly sow with a defined dark stripe along her spine has a long rap sheet: nothing violent, no confirmed reports of snitching human food, but behaviors showing little fear of people. Waller calls her passive-aggressive – following backcountry rangers, waltzing through a backcountry campsite when people were present, and strolling straight down the trail toward hikers. She was teaching her cubs to do the same around Old Man and Morningstar Lakes.

Bears, including the blond sow, gravitate to the two glacial pockets hanging on the Continental Divide’s east wall. “It is prime bear habitat with a recognized history of bears,” explains Pete Webster, Triple Divide Subdistrict Ranger, alluding to rich huckleberry crops and the two lake campgrounds’ frequent bear closures over the past decade. The campsites were even pulled from the backcountry reservation list, since repeated closures rendered them undependable for planning backpacker itineraries.

In summer 2004, Webster faced the Old Man Lake sow and her two cubs keeping the campsites closed most of the season. Finally, in August, Waller trapped the sow. With her lack of wariness, she targeted his bait in a quick couple of hours, and he fitted her with a radio collar. During the next two summers, she got an education she didn’t expect.

In conjunction with Wind River Bear Institute, the park service embarked on a project to modify her behavior. During multi-week stints the following two summers, bear managers camped out at Old Man Lake, shepherding her and the cubs with barking Karelian bear dogs and hazing her with rubber bullets and cracker rounds when she inched near the campground. They worked with her, teaching the trio to travel under forest cover rather than on the trail.

This July, bear managers returned to Old Man Lake to evaluate her behavior, but she eluded both their radio telemetry antennae and eyes. “She’s been a very visible bear,” says Webster. “We got reports of sightings of her all the time. Not seeing her was a pretty good sign.” With that success, Webster opened the two backcountry campgrounds on July 16. Despite the sow’s avoidance of people, Old Man Lake campground was closed again by August 18 due to a black bear cruising through when campers violated backcountry protocol by cooking and hanging food in their sleeping site.

Just as with humans, habits are difficult to break for bears. Waller estimates the Old Man Lake sow may have been in an eight-year behavioral pattern. “We knew we’d need to do occasional boosters,” says Waller. Sure enough, bear managers recently gave her a little reminder. While ranger patrols checked out the area for the black bear, they had the first sighting of her. “She was chummy,” says Waller. “Right on the trail, she rolled on her back with all four feet in the air.” The rangers delivered a reminder: rubber bullets.

So far, her 3-year-old cubs – now on their own – haven’t been reported. “We might have to deal with the cubs in future years,” he says, but he’s hoping they gleaned something from their mother’s education.

Waller estimates the cost of her education at around $30,000, of which two-thirds was donated from the Glacier Fund. But these dollars stretch beyond one bear. As a 14-year-old, the Old Man Lake Bear has the potential to mother six more cubs in her lifetime. Some offspring may be females – children and grandchildren – crucial to the threatened grizzly population. Waller notes, “To stop a productive female before food conditioning happened was an opportune time to intervene.”

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