Bears Emerging from Dens Across Northwest Montana

Residents reminded to ‘be bear aware’ and reduce or secure food attractants

By Tristan Scott
Grizzly Bear. Adobe Stock

With the arrival of spring, bears are beginning to emerge from their mountain dens and descend into the lower valleys in search of food, prompting wildlife officials to issue their perennial reminder for residents to be bear aware in an effort to reduce conflicts.

Bears den at a variety of elevations during winter, but most grizzly bears den above 6,000 feet. Grizzlies typically stay around the den for approximately a week before moving to areas without snow.

As temperatures warm and local black bears and grizzlies begin to stir in the Flathead Valley, wildlife managers are anticipating an uptick in reports of bear sightings and conflicts with humans, a problem that can be dramatically reduced if residents remember to lock up pet food, birdseed, trash, and other food attractants.

“It is entirely avoidable if we start at the beginning of the season and make a conscious effort to secure these food attractants,” Erik Wenum, bear and lion specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said.

Bears gain confidence with each incremental learning experience in which they receive a positive food reward, and wildlife managers urge residents to take steps to avoid conflicts by reducing attractants.

Wenum said the number-one conflict between bears and humans on the wildland-urban interface results from unsecured trash.

“That’s also the easiest to manage,” he said. “Bears are single-response learners. They figure it out the first time. This is a taught learning curve, and if they get a reward out of your trash can, it will happen again.”

Grizzly and black bears will soon begin roaming the Flathead Valley in greater abundance as they scour the valley floor for green, succulent vegetation to jumpstart their digestive tract.

Bears emerging from hibernation may be lethargic because their systems have been shut down for five or six months, so they often start out browsing on dry grasses before they’re ready for the bigger items that will bring them into the river corridors and closer to town.

So far this year, wildlife managers have received reports of bears getting into garbage in Whitefish and Bigfork, though no significant conflicts have been reported.

Most bears access town by traveling along river corridors, and in Whitefish those pathways typically lead them to the northwest part of town, along Wisconsin Avenue and Edgewood.

Beyond securing trash and other attractants, wildlife managers recommend bear-resistant bins in communities and on ranches; electric fence systems to protect chicken coops, bee yards and sheep bedding grounds; and random redistribution of livestock carcasses each spring.

Domestic chickens have been a particularly serious problem the past few years, according to wildlife managers.

If bears encounter birdseed — an ideal source of fat and protein — in a residential backyard, they’ll become increasingly adventuresome and comfortable around homes, Wenum said.

He encouraged anyone recreating on trail systems to carry bear spray.

There are more than 1,000 grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, an area encompassing the Flathead and Swan valleys. It’s the largest population of grizzlies in the lower 48 states.

As a reminder, it is illegal to knowingly feed deer, elk, moose, mountain lions, and bears. Putting out salt blocks and deer blocks is illegal unless it is for livestock.

Residents are encouraged to report bear activity.

To report grizzly bear activity in the greater Flathead Valley, call FWP bear management specialists at (406) 250-1265. To report black bear and mountain lion activity in the greater Flathead Valley, call (406) 250-0062. To report bear activity in the Cabinet-Yaak area, call (406) 291-1320.

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