ST. IGNATIUS — When Stacey Thoft-Plimmer has a rough day at work, she comes home and checks how many grizzly bears are hanging around her dad’s place.
“It’s a stress-reliever,” Thoft-Plimmer said. “You go out and get the cameras and see what you got. It’s fun.”
The followers of Mission Valley Montana Cam have gotten to share Thoft-Plimmer’s videos of grizzly bears shaking down apple trees, balancing across irrigation pipes, lounging in creek pools and simply wandering around the forest north of St. Ignatius. She posts them to Facebook every day or so when the bears are down in the lower valley elevations, which happens to be right now.
Her parents, Susie and Bob Thoft, moved onto a 250-acre cattle ranch at the foot of the Mission Mountains in 1999. The site has one of several creeks that drain the steep mountains. Grizzly bears follow the waterways down to the valley floor, often right past their house.
“I looked out one day and saw seven bears in the apple trees,” Susie Thoft said. “I called my husband while he was on a hunting trip. He said, ‘There’s no way you’re seeing more bears than me — I’m up in Alaska.'”
The couple had often picnicked at the edge of the woods and strolled around without ever realizing how many bears were cruising the neighborhood. So in 2016 Thoft-Plimmer decided to put up a game camera and see who showed up.
“We got a lot more bears on camera than we expected,” she said. “We started with one camera, and now we’re up to six. It’s got to be a really fun, father-daughter thing to go do.”
Thoft-Plimmer moves the cameras around frequently. The bears make trails through the woods where she picks positions. She usually goes in with two or three other people, all carrying bear spray.
“I don’t pack a gun,” Thoft-Plimmer said. “The last thing we want to do is shoot one.”
Susie Thoft said to date the grizzlies have never attacked one of her cows either, although they have fed on dead carcasses. Confederated Salish-Kootenai bear biologist Stacy Courville said that’s not unusual for ranchers in the area.
“I’ve watched Holsteins put the run on grizzlies,” Courville said. “But not always. I’m up here now pulling a culvert trap after a dairy had a couple of depredations, a grizzly killing calves. They put up an electric fence and they haven’t lost another calf.”
Remote cameras have revolutionized wildlife management since their capabilities were combined with cellphone connections. Courville said he can mount cameras by traps he leaves open, and can tell by cellphone picture if the particular grizzly he’s seeking has come to the bait, or whether it’s some other non-target bear.
Thoft-Plimmer has no biology background or video experience, but she said she’s picking up both through her time with the bear cameras. She was surprised to see a grizzly cub carefully climb an apple tree to get at the upper fruit without breaking branches. Another time a bear family group suddenly bolted from the scene, to be replaced a moment later by a huge male grizzly.
Thoft-Plimmer daubs her cameras with Lysol to keep the bears from getting too curious. She tried bleach, but discovered elk like to lick it for a salt taste. So far, the bears have only wrecked one camera.
“All we saw was a bear nose and then no more video,” she said. “We still keep that one as a souvenir.”
Her family members usually see grizzlies in the fur only two or three times a year. The cameras have revealed a much more active bear world than anyone expected. Once Thoft-Plimmer started posting her greatest hits to Facebook and YouTube, she discovered a human world was equally interested.
“I need to take a bear class and a video-editing class but I haven’t had the time,” she said. “But by the time I check cameras and upload, I don’t know if I have the bandwidth to keep up with any other platforms. I’m not looking for a strategy to do anything with this. You’d hate to ruin a hobby.”