Environment

A Fed Bear

Another busy summer along the remote North Fork Flathead River has led to a spate of incidents involving unsecured garbage and grizzly bears this summer, culminating in the recent death of a well-known resident sow who lived among the locals for nearly two decades, as well as her three yearling cubs

By Tristan Scott
Monica the grizzly bear with three cubs on June 8, 2020. Photo by W. K. Walker

Twenty years ago, new arrivals to the remote North Fork Flathead River community of Polebridge were likely to hear some version of the following when asking for directions — just head north and hang a right at the pile of bear scat.

Situated on the doorstep of Glacier National Park, which merges with the Bob Marshall Wilderness to create the largest intact natural ecosystem in the Northern Rockies, the North Fork’s resident grizzly bear population has historically outnumbered its year-round residents, as evidenced by the prominent distribution of scatological droppings along the area’s trails and roadways. Still, the human interlopers who do call this wild chunk of country home have, more or less, learned how to coexist with their mammalian neighbors, reaching an accord that just comes with the territory in bear country.

And yet in recent years, due in part to the increased visitation at Glacier National Park, whose western boundary is defined by the North Fork Flathead River, as well as the expansion of commercial services in and around the community of Polebridge — leading to the development of “work camps” to house a growing number of seasonal workers — human-wildlife conflicts have been on the rise.

Recently, those conflicts led to the difficult management decision to kill four food-conditioned grizzlies in the North Fork, including Monica, a well-known resident sow, and her three yearling cubs. The decision followed a spate of escalating incidents involving property destruction, including camp trailers and vehicles, resulting in significant food rewards for the bears.

“I have said it many times before,” said Tim Manley, grizzly bear management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), “killing bears is the worst part of my job. We try to avoid having to do it but when bears become very food-conditioned and start causing property damage and breaking into vehicles, trailers and cabins, those bears are removed.”

For three decades, Manley has been resolving conflicts between grizzly bears and people in Northwest Montana, in large part by forging relationships with landowners and shifting perceptions about how to coexist on a crowded landscape. Nowhere have those relationships been more enduring than up the North Fork, where Manley has dedicated untold resources as the grizzly population recovered and its habitat range blossomed, coinciding with an influx of human inhabitants.

“We have spent a lot of time in the North Fork talking to landowners and visitors about preventing conflicts,” Manley said. “The community has sponsored two bear fairs, groups have developed and distributed information about living in bear country, we have given presentations to the [North Fork Landowners Association] and the [North Fork Preservation Association]. I have attended and given updates at most of the North Fork Interlocal meetings. We have loaned bear resistant Kodiak cans to businesses and some residents.”

Still, the death of Monica and her four cubs has prompted community stakeholders up the North Fork to ramp up their outreach and education efforts to provide business owners, visitors and newly minted residents with the tools and resources necessary to safely occupy bear country. The objective is to prevent the conditioning of wildlife to human food and waste, which is at the heart of the popular adage, “A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear.”

Monica, who was tagged with the official designation of Bear No. 418 after her first capture in 2004 at the site of a calf depredation on the east side, was relocated to the western edge of Glacier National Park. She remained there for the ensuing 17 years, spending a majority of her time in Glacier, while denning in Hay Creek and on Cyclone Peak above the North Fork.

“During those 17 years she was captured twice in culvert traps set for research,” Manley wrote in a report posted on the North Fork Preservation Association’s (NFPA) website. “She wore the radio collars for a few years before they dropped off. During those 17 years, we documented her having at least four litters. Two litters of two and two litters of three.”

While Monica often spent time near homes and was observed by residents, Manley explained, she did not cause conflicts “that we knew about” until the fall of 2018, when she and two of her three yearlings ripped into a yurt, damaged two vehicles, consumed unsecured garbage, and pushed on a trailer. Observers reported that the two yearlings were causing the conflicts, and Manley made the always-difficult decision to lethally remove them. Last year, Manley received several reports of Monica and her three cubs of the year in the Hay Creek area, but the sightings didn’t involve any documented conflicts.

“The spring and early summer of 2021 were pretty quiet except I did get a report of grizzly bears getting into a garage to get garbage above Polebridge,” according to Manley’s report. “In late August, that changed.”

The escalating behavior resulted in numerous reports of the bears knocking over barbecue grills, accessing bear-safe garbage containers with malfunctioning locks, breaking into a horse trailer used to store garbage, as well as a pickup topper, and attempting to break into a garage to access garbage. The incidents came to a head on Sept. 1, when Manley received a report that grizzly bears had broken into an unoccupied camp trailer on property near Home Ranch Bottoms, causing extensive damage and receiving a “big food reward.”

By Sept. 4, all four bears had been captured, with Manley administering lethal doses of euthanasia.

“When I heard about this, honestly I wept,” Richard Hildner, a North Fork resident and president of the North Fork Landowners Association (NFLA), said. “We were all just sick and saddened, and we are determined to step up as a bear safe community. It is incumbent on both the public and our local commercial entities to prevent bear habituation to human food and garbage.”

The need to step up is gaining urgency as communities in bear country enter the fall season, a time when bears are increasingly active in preparation for winter denning. FWP officials have been overwhelmed with reports of bears getting into unsecured garbage and livestock feed, as well as feeding on domestic fruit on residential properties.

“It’s mostly a matter of education,” said William Walker, a longtime North Fork resident. “As a community, we have been working on this for some time, and earlier this year we sent out a massive number of mailers to landowners about living with wildlife and other information. But evidently, more needs to be done.”

Flannery Coats, a North Fork business owner who has worked as a seasonal ranger for Glacier National Park, now serves as president of the North Fork Preservation Association. She recalls an incident in 2009, when she owned the Polebridge Mercantile, involving a family of black bears that broke into what she believed to be a secured garbage container.

“None of us are immune from goofing up,” Coats, who now runs a restaurant at Home Ranch Bottoms, said. “I wouldn’t have taken so many steps to bear-proof my business today if I hadn’t made that mistake. We’re all allowed one goof-up. But we have to correct our behavior and learn from it.”

The grizzly bear population that spans the North Fork and Glacier National Park is part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). As of Sept. 13, there have been 39 known grizzly bear mortalities in the NCDE, compared to 37 known grizzly bear mortalities in the NCDE in all of 2020. The projected population size of grizzly bears in the NCDE is 1,114.

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