Bears Stirring and Searching for Food

By Beacon Staff

Bears are stirring earlier than usual and have already resumed behavior that led to a record number of captures last year.

Officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recently relocated a 535-pound male grizzly bear that killed seven calves in four nights near Lincoln. The local FWP office has also been receiving reports of bear sightings near Whitefish and Columbia Falls.

The reemergence of bears has led to a campaign by wildlife officials reminding residents to clean up attractants that increase the likelihood of conflicts.

“They’re really on the prowl out there looking for stuff, so people need to be extra vigilant,” said Erik Wenum, a lion and bear biologist for FWP Region 1. “It’s time to pull in the bird feeders and secure the trash.”

Finding food is a priority for bears as they begin exiting dens, and during the early spring months, when natural food sources are scarce, they will scavenge for anything, Wenum said. With their hyper sense of smell, bears are easily attracted by a wide array of objects, from the steak bone at the bottom of an outdoor garbage can to a chicken coop in the backyard. Even something seemingly benign like bird feeders can bring in a bear, Wenum said. Feeders containing seeds, sugar water and suet – basically animal lard – are some of the more common attractants.

“People have to remember bears are an omnivore; they eat anything and everything,” he said.

Attractants increase the chances of an incident involving a bear and frequently lead to the animal’s death, according to FWP. Nine out of 10 times, bears that are accustomed to eating human food sources are eventually euthanized for safety reasons.

People should be cautious of both black and grizzly bears, Wenum said.

Historically, fatal black bear encounters, although rare, have resulted primarily from predatory male bears targeting humans in the wild, according to a new report co-authored by a leading bear expert.

Black bears killed 63 people in Canada, Alaska and the lower 48 states between 1900 and 2009, according to a study published this month in the Journal of Wildlife Management and led by Dr. Stephen Herrero, a professor emeritus at the University of Calgary.

The study found that 88 percent of fatal attacks involved a black bear exhibiting “predatory behavior.” Of those incidents, 92 percent of the bears were male, countering the widespread belief that the most dangerous type of encounter is surprising a sow with her cubs.

Grizzlies were especially prominent in Northwest Montana last year. The FWP conducted a record 47 captures involving 32 grizzly bears between May 16 and Nov. 21 in Region 1. The annual average is 17. FWP reported that most of the conflicts resulted from bears rummaging through chicken coops. Residents with poultry are being urged to use quality electric fencing.

Yellowstone had its first mauling inside park boundaries since 1986 last July after a sow attacked a hiker who was near its cubs. In the summer of 2010, grizzlies killed two other people in separate incidents near Yellowstone.

Bears have killed 28 people over the last decade, according to a listing of known attacks maintained by Bearplanet.org.

Wildlife officials and researchers from across the country and Canada convened in Missoula two weeks ago to discuss issues surrounding bears, like safety and preventative measures.

When it comes to fighting back or preventing incidents, bear spray appears to be safer and more effective than firearms, according to two separate studies presented by Herrero at the Fourth International Human-Bear Conflict Workshop.

In a study of 72 incidents involving 175 people, 98 percent of those who used bear spray escaped a conflict unharmed, according to Herrero and cited in a recent Missoulian story.

In a separate, more extensive study of 269 incidents involving 444 people, 56 percent of those who tried deterring a bear attack using firearms were subsequently injured, Herrero said.

Last fall, a Nevada man was killed near Libby after Department of the Interior officials determined a fellow hunter shot at a grizzly bear and the bullet passed through the animal and killed the man.

Wildlife officials face a “new era” of grizzly bear management now that populations have rebounded in the Northern Rockies after being listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. Using a population trend monitoring program, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials estimate there are currently about 1,000 grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

Since 2005, wildlife officials have seen an increase in grizzly bear conflicts, and part of that is due to bears pushing out of recovery zones to re-colonize traditional habitat that may be populated by humans, FWP bear biologist Mike Madel said in a statement.

“We have good preventive measures in place where bears were occurring,” Madel said. “Now, as the recovery continues, we are expanding that prevention work.”

Correction: The Beacon was originally given outdated population estimates for grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Using a trend monitoring program, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials estimate there are currently about 1,000 grizzlies.

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