In Northwest Montana, wildlife officials believe late springtime snow followed by cold, wet weather has kept grizzly and black bears at lower elevations for a longer period of time this summer.
And in the state’s central-western portion, around Missoula, a bear management specialist there says low snowpack in the winter also impacted bears’ food supplies and migratory patterns. The result has been more encounters with humans, as bears are rummaging through yards and getting hit on roads with increased frequency.
The concern now is that some of these bears have hung around long enough to get a taste of the good life’s low-hanging fruit: garbage, bird feeders, dog food and maybe even some picnic leftovers.
“We might be in for one of those hellacious years,” said James Jonkel, bear manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Region 2. “About every seven or eight years you have some environmental change that leads to the bears coming down to the low elevations instead of the mid and high elevations.”
He added: “It’s a recipe for disaster when you have all of the bears needing to use the low level areas.”
Jonkel said his “phone has been ringing off the hook” with people calling about bear sightings, mostly black bears. Some have been hit on the highway, some have wandered into lawns looking for goodies and one nearly bit a camper’s ear off while he was sleeping in his tent near St. Regis, causing a laceration that required 21 stitches.
Jim Williams, wildlife manager for FWP’s Region 1 in Northwest Montana, has also seen an uptick in encounters with humans and bears, though not a drastic one. Late-season snows, accompanied by cool, moist weather, delayed natural vegetation cycles in the mountains. All the best food remained down low for longer than usual this year.
Within about a week of each other in May, three grizzly bears that had been getting too close to homes were relocated from the Ferndale area to the South Fork of Flathead River drainage. More grizzlies in the following month were also relocated in Northwest Montana.
At the beginning of July, a male black bear that had been roaming in the Whitefish Lake State Park area was euthanized after it got too comfortable and aggressive with humans.
Most notable of all, wildlife officials say, is the high number of black bears killed on roads. Tim Manley, a bear management specialist with FWP’s Region 1, said five black bears in the area were hit on roads within a week of each other earlier this summer. There have been others, both reported and unreported, officials say.
Also, within a two-week period in June, two young grizzlies were killed by vehicles on U.S. Highway 93 on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
But Williams said a recent FWP flyover revealed more bears higher in the mountains, meaning at least some of them are moving up elevation as the weather warms. Not all, though.
“You have the possibility for bears to get habituated,” Williams said. “The warm weather should get natural bear foods up, but they still may stay low because they know there’s an easier food source.”
Those easier food sources come from humans, including major culprits such as garbage cans on front porches, dog and cat food left outside, dumpsters and bird feeders. Jonkel and Williams say that people can keep bears from wandering into neighborhoods and yards by keeping those food sources enclosed, maintained or safely stored inside whenever possible.
“It’s like leaving $20 bills all over the street in downtown Kalispell and not expecting people to pick them up,” Jonkel said.
Salt and molasses licks are also bear attractants, particularly when other animals take a liking to them, Jonkel said. Over time, deer and other prey form trails leading to the licks, creating convenient passageways for the predatory bears.
And sometimes, green lawns are an attractant by themselves, Jonkel said, as “bears eat tons of grass; they graze like cows.”
“Usually when you have a bear showing up around your house, they want to eat your green grass,” Jonkel said. “It’s lush and it’s mowed and it’s full of protein and you’re watering it twice a day. And then they find spare ribs and potato salad.”
Jonkel reminds that there was a frost in October, “and who knows what kind of effect that had” on bear habits. Fall frost, low winter snowpack and late spring snowfall in the mountains all impact a bear’s food supply.
“Each year when you go into spring it’s different as far as what grasses and what parsnips are in the best places,” Jonkel said. “This year, with low snowpack, the word on the street in the bears’ world is that this year we go down low. Less abundant food supply – that’s my gut feeling.”
Jonkel and Williams remind campers to be smart about keeping their camp clean, and everybody else to be smart about what they keep around their house in sight of bears. Jonkel said “a community can get organized and neighbors can tell each other to keep their bird feeders inside.”
“We have drainages that used to have one ranch family that now have 70 homes, with 70 garbage cans and 70 swinging bird feeders,” Jonkel said. “It’s not simple and it will never go away and it will just get worse until people start running clean, tight ships.”
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