WHITEFISH – Wildlife and city officials are urging Flathead Valley residents to secure their garbage and other attractants due to mounting conflicts between bears and people living on the wildlife-urban interface.
In a recent presentation to Whitefish City Council, Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear specialist Erik Wenum encouraged council members to expand an ordinance regulating trash management in city limits, and asked residents to store garbage containers in a bear-proof storage area and use bear-resistant trash cans.
In any 24-hour period between mid-April and the end of November, Wenum said there is at least one bear roaming the Whitefish city limits. It’s not uncommon for a bear to cruise neighborhoods and knock over every garbage can on the block in search of an easy meal, Wenum said. If a bear receives a food reward, it will return again and again.
“Right now bears have people problems and people have bear problems, and we have to learn to co-exist,” Wenum said. “This is a manageable problem. Bears are a single-response learner, so if they’re not rewarded they won’t return.”
So far this year, Wenum has received more than 55 calls about bears in Whitefish, and 212 calls about problem bears throughout the Flathead Valley. He showed council members a map depicting 315 locations where he has historically received calls about bear encounters, including sites as far south as Whitefish City Hall.
“And we haven’t even hit stride yet,” Wenum said, adding that he typically receives 1,200 calls in his territory every year.
A current city ordinance prohibits residents north of Denver Street and Bay Point Drive from putting their trash out before 4 a.m. on garbage pickup day, and Wenum asked council members to enforce the ordinance citywide. Because Whitefish is situated near prime bear habitat like Haskill and Hellroaring basins, it’s important for residents to be vigilant about securing attractants.
“Bears use the Whitefish River as a travel corridor and pretty soon they find themselves in town. If they discover food, they’re going to come back and stay, and once they develop that behavioral quirk there’s a problem,” he said.
In addition to trash, Wenum said bears are drawn to bird feeders, fruit trees, pet food, livestock feed, and, increasingly, chicken coops.
“Chickens have become a big problem,” he said. “Part of the reason is that a lot of people are raising chickens, but they’re keeping them in small, dilapidated coops. If you don’t do it right, you will have problems.”
More than 100 chickens were killed by bears already this year, and FWP trapped at least three separate bears because of conflicts with humans.
The conflicts are entirely avoidable, land managers say, but it’s the responsibility of landowners to buck the trend.
Wenum and other managers are encouraging landowners to build electric fences around chicken coops and other attractants, like vegetable gardens, fruit orchards and beehives. The fences are cheap and when constructed properly will deter even the craftiest bears.
Jonathan Proctor at the Defenders of Wildlife said the nonprofit wildlife preservation organization launched an electric fence incentive program, and contributes to the cost of installing an electric fence around livestock and chicken coops.
So far this year, Defenders of Wildlife has helped fund more than 50 electric fences in western Montana, mostly in the Flathead Valley. He said the organization has spent a half-million dollars on grizzly bear co-existence projects in western Montana.
Dial said residents need to be held accountable for leaving attractants that are accessible by bears, and asked if there was agreement among councilors to move forward with a city-wide ordinance.
“It’s not the bears’ fault,” he said.
Since 1993, the state has averaged 18 grizzly bear captures in Northwest Montana every year, according to FWP bear specialist Tim Manley. In 2011 the state saw one of its busiest years with 45 captures of 30 different grizzly bears. In 2012, FWP had 19 captures of 18 different grizzly bears.
“This is prime bear habitat. We have more bears on the landscape, more people, and as we continue to move further and further out into prime bear habitat we are going to see more bear-human conflicts if people don’t learn to control their bad habits,” Wenum said.
Bear-resistant containers are available by contacting the Whitefish public works department at 863-2460. They cost $1.75 per month.
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