Fruit gleaning programs involving volunteers collecting fruit from private property are growing in the Flathead Valley as part of organized efforts to reduce conflicts between bears and humans.
One of the central hubs for fruit gleaning opportunities is the Flathead Fruit Gleaning group on Facebook, which was set up in 2019 by Justine Vallieres, a Kalispell-based bear management specialist for Montana, Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
The group mostly functions as a kind of digital message board, where people can post about fruit gleaning opportunities and then others can respond, offering to take on the task. Columbia Falls residents have posted about their ripening plums, and others have posted about apples and crabapples outside of Lakeside. Sometimes volunteers are simply interested in helping. In other cases, they’re looking to collect fruit for home-cooking projects. Apples, plums, pears and cherries are all potentially on the menu for volunteers.
The reasons people might ask for gleaning assistance are varied. Some property owners are too old to collect their fruit. Other people have disabilities, or don’t have the time or ability to collect fruit. Fruit is a strong attractant for bears, and Vallieres said this year has been particularly fraught with conflicts between bears and humans. By early September she was reporting her busiest year in five years, with 520 bear conflict calls since April 1 spread across Eureka, the North Fork and Marias Pass. The period spanning late summer and early fall is when bears typically enter a hyperphagic state in which they bulk up on calories needed for the winter months.
“Whitefish and Columbia Falls are kind of a nightmare. I mean everywhere is kind of a nightmare in the fall,” she said. “But this year, conflicts have just been so high, the calls that we’ve gotten this season have just been crazy. Even throughout the whole season so far. Usually there’s a lull in July and August and there wasn’t this year. So, we’re just anticipating a crazy year this year.”
Vallieres brought the issue to the attention of the Columbia Falls City Council, which earlier this month passed a 90-day emergency ordinance. The ordinance requires residents and business owners in city limits to stop feeding domestic animals outdoors unless the food is locked and secured overnight, to store all attractants including garbage and recycling indoors or in bear-resistant garbage cans, to remove ripe fruit from trees and areas around trees, to remove or empty bird feeders at night, to store coolers, grills, smokers and other items with food scent indoors, and to store garbage indoors until the morning of pickup.
Vallieres thinks there are a variety of factors making this year such a difficult one. The cold, wet spring slowed snow melt off in the high country, which kept bears in the valley bottom for longer than normal. Similarly, the cold and rain weren’t favorable to wild huckleberries that are a staple in regional bear diets. The valley’s human population has also continued to grow, which leads to increased conflicts with bears. In some cases, unpicked fruit can bring a bear into a populated area, and from there the animal will progress to garbage.
Since Vallieres set up the fruit-gleaning Facebook page, grizzly bear conflict specialists with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have set up a Mission Valley Fruit Gleaning Facebook group. The Mission Valley Fruit Gleaning Program has equipment pickups and drop-offs in Polson, Ronan and St. Ignatius. On Saturday, Sept. 24, the Second Annual Bear and Cider Festival will take place in Pablo. The event will feature free cider pressing, a talk with bear specialists, bear safety demonstrations and food trucks.
The North Valley Food Bank in Whitefish has a Fall Fruit Harvest planned for Sept. 25 starting at 1 p.m. People interested in participating should meet at the food bank and can contact the organizers for more information. The harvest is aimed at harvesting local fruit “to feed our neighbors and spread bear awareness,” according to posters for the event.
Bear Aware Bigfork on Sept. 19 began its participation in “Save A Bear, Glean A Tree Week.” The fruit-gleaning drive goes through Friday, Sept. 23. Fruit can be dropped off in Kalispell at 490 N. Meridian Road between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and for Bigfork, Ferndale and Swan Valley residents, fruit can be dropped off at Wayfarers State Park between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Tina Zenzola is the volunteer coordinator for Bear Aware Bigfork. She said the Bigfork group is the volunteer arm of Swan Valley Bear Resources, which looks to address bear conflicts on private and public property in the Swan River watershed.
Through Bear Aware Bigfork, Zenzola said she and other volunteers try to connect area residents with resources, information and programming that can reduce conflicts, like opportunities for discounted or free bear-resistant trash cans.
This is the second year Bear Aware Bigfork has participated in the gleaning week, and Zenzola said it’s possible that down the road they could include a festival type event similar to what’s done in the Mission Valley.
“We’re a small but mighty volunteer group. Our core is about 10 people, but we do recruit friends and family members and neighbors during this time,” Zenzola said.
The volunteers with Bear Aware Bigfork don’t make up the entirety of gleaners in the community, however. Zenzola described how community members who have seen flyers or social media postings encouraging people to pick fruit during “Save A Bear, Glean A Tree Week,” will also drop off fruit at the Wayfarers State Park drop-off site.
The fruit picked for “Save A Bear, Glean A Tree Week,” is delivered to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, where it’s used to feed bears, some of which Zenzola said wound up there because of conflicts in this part of the state. In years past, Vallieres has driven a truck full of fruit down to a meeting point with the discovery center in Missoula, but a truck wasn’t quite enough for last year’s haul.
“Last year they had so much fruit, and a huge amount of it coming from our area, she had to get a horse trailer to haul it, plus a truck,” Zenzola said.
Vallieres said the trailer normally could have fit three horses, but instead it was packed with fruit.
“Every year that’s grown,” she said. “Every year it seems more and more.”
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