A rash of grizzly bear incidents in Northwest Montana has led to one of the busiest years ever involving captures and relocations, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
FWP has made 43 grizzly bear captures in Region 1 because of problem incidents this year, one of the highest numbers ever, according to FWP.
“This valley is a real grizzly hot spot,” FWP spokesperson John Fraley said.
Six grizzlies have had to be euthanized in recent months and one has been transferred to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone following problems, Fraley said.
Fraley attributes the increase in numbers to the fact that the grizzly population has recovered in the Northern Rockies in recent years, with an estimated 1,000 bears living in the region.
Because of that, FWP has seen an increase in incidents this fall, even through November when bears are most often in dens for the winter. In the valley, grizzlies have been relocated after killing chickens, sheep, getting into pig feed and feeding on fruit. All of the bears were relocated to sites like Frozen Lake, Spotted Bear, and the Sullivan Creek drainage, FWP said. The adult or solitary bears were fitted with radio collars for tracking purposes.
Tena Coulter has lived on Star Meadows Road near Elk Mountain for 20 years and has never had any problems with bears. Until recently.
A few weeks ago a 400-pound grizzly visited the Coulter’s property four nights in a row and tore up their shed and knocked over bird feeders and garbage cans. Coulter’s neighbor, Jeannette Aquino, said she had a similar first-time experience earlier this year and had five goats and two llamas killed at her property by a relocated grizzly bear.
Elk Mountain is a designated drop site for grizzlies that are relocated by Fish, Wildlife and Parks. This fall has been a busy one for FWP regarding grizzly relocations. In a two-week span in October, FWP relocated nine grizzlies from around the Flathead Valley.
Aquino is worried that bears are being relocated too close to people, and that incidents like the ones taking place at Star Meadows could become more common across the valley.
“I’m concerned about them relocating these bears,” she said. “There’s a lot of people living up here at the top (of Star Meadows). Elk Mountain is not exactly a remote area. It’s not like they’re putting (bears) in the middle of the Bob Marshall.”
Coulter said she understands the risk of living outside of town in a more remote area, and plans to take extra precautions in the future as far as keeping feed and other possible attractants tightly contained.
“We feel we chose to live here and that’s kind of the way it is,” she said. “I don’t feel it’s a problem but there is getting to be more grizzly bears up here.”
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee works with the FWP to determine relocation sites. If possible, bears are kept close to their home range but still far enough away from people to prevent another problem, Fraley said.
That can be difficult though, he added.
“There is really nowhere to put a bear anymore where it’s in the middle of nowhere,” Fraley said. “There are bears everywhere and there are people everywhere.”
“We don’t release bears where we feel they’re going to be a safety threat or where they’ll encounter humans,” he added.
Even wilderness areas like the Bob Marshall are populated enough that relocating the bears there would not be a better solution, Fraley said.
Not all moves are successful and a “fair amount of time the bear will return or cause problems somewhere else,” he said.
FWP does not move bears that its biologists believe are dangers to human safety. A bear can be deemed a danger either through sex, age or the type of action that caused it to be relocated in the first place. Typically bears that are conditioned to eating food near people are considered the most dangerous and are often put down.
Fraley said FWP is doubling its efforts to spread education about limiting bear attractants as a way to mitigate future run-ins. But the possibility of completely preventing incidents is unlikely.
“When you have 1,000 bears and you figure all the people that are spread around the landscape, (the number of run-ins is) just going to get bigger,” he said.
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