NCDE Grizzly Specialists Describe Key Human-Bear Conflicts in 2023, Emphasize Preventative Measures

While electric fences reduced human-bear conflict levels this year, Northwest Montana had 224 total calls and 13 known grizzly bear mortalities

By Anusha Mathur
A grizzly bear in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem seen on Sept. 12, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Last week marked the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee winter meeting, where experts from around the state gathered in Polson to discuss grizzly management and upcoming conservation plans. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Wildlife Management Specialists Justine Vallieres and Erik Wenum presented about northwest Montana on Nov. 28.

The duo outlined bear management techniques in their areas of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) and summarized key human-bear conflicts this past year. Vallieres covers the region south of the Whitefish city limits up to the Canadian border, as well as Eureka, the North Fork, West Glacier, and Marias Pass. Wenum is responsible for portions of the Flathead Valley extending into the Swan Range and Spotted Bear wilderness areas.

Grizzlies in the Lower 48 states are protected as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). In the NCDE recovery area, the grizzly population has grown to about 1,100 bears. In Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, governors and state management agencies have petitioned the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist grizzlies from the ESA and return the populations to state oversight, citing a spike in conflicts and saying that recovery objectives have been met.

Vallieres opened her presentation last week by explaining that this year, the overall region received fewer calls regarding bear issues compared to the past. She received 96 total calls and Wenum’s team received 128 calls. However, Vallieres was forced to deal with more serious human-bear conflict situations than Wenum, as 67% of her calls warranted sending officials out into the field, whereas only 32% of Wenum’s calls needed a field response.

“The majority of our calls, as usual, were due to unsecured chicken coops and unsecured garbage,” Vallieres said. “I’ve been trying to set fewer traps over the years and focus more on mitigating the conflicts using electric fences and working with landowners to secure attractants rather than just setting traps and relocating. Relocation is kind of a band-aid solution, whereas tackling the issue prevents future conflicts from occurring.”

Justine Vallieres, Wildlife Conflict Management Specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Polebridge on June 2, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Wenum emphasized that coexistence between humans and bears is certainly possible and is the ultimate goal of their work. He said that he is encouraged by recent reports, which show that there are 10 grizzly bears living within 32 miles of Kalispell, but these animals have caused very few conflicts.

“They’re surrounded by people, surrounded by all kinds of good things to eat, but over the last two weeks we only got three phone calls about them,” Wenum said. “And those were just safety calls to let me know that they were there. It’s pretty incredible that they’re not generating problems and are generally good in terms of their flexibility to live with us – much better than we are with them.”

Despite ongoing efforts to emphasize preventative measures to reduce human-bear interaction, there were still numerous conflicts this past year. Vallieres reported 11 mortalities and one probable mortality in her area – including two hit by trains and three bears shot in self-defense. Two of these self-defense cases are still under investigation. The probable mortality resulted from a landowner shooting a bear who attacked his outdoor dog; however, a body has not been found. Vallieres also had to remove six bears from the ecosystem and send them to zoos.

Some examples of conflicts were a grizzly sow and her cub breaking into unsecured garbage in the Fortine area and another female with three cubs raiding unsecured chicken coops, garages, barns, and trucks. Despite attempts to trap and relocate the bears, ultimately, the cubs were sent to zoos. The second adult female bear was euthanized.

“We need to look at the big picture when trying to conserve females and take into consideration generational conflict history,” Vallieres said. “It’s not an easy thing to do, but removing one female with bad learned behaviors will conserve more bears in the long run. It’s critical for us to work towards long term solutions such as working with landowners to secure attractants rather than just trapping and relocating. Relocation is just a temporary solution and doesn’t address the root cause of the issues.”

The two bears killed by trains were an unmarked adult male and another known female.

“It was especially a bummer to see this female go because she actually was one of those bears that could live amongst people and go through neighborhoods and I never got any calls on her,” Vallieres said. “She was one of the good ones.”

Vallieres also described several incidents that required intervention from wildlife human-attack response team. These included evaluating a female grizzly who consumed the body of a man who took his own life, responding to archery hunters who shot and killed a sow, leaving three cubs alone on the landscape, as well as addressing a male grizzly who attacked a woman in a surprise encounter on a hike.

Wenum added that he dealt with several conflict incidents, including an orphan bear and a management bear from 2022. There were two known mortalities this year in his area, including one male grizzly shot during black bear season as well as a seven-year-old male bear that damaged 15 boats on the Hungry Horse Reservoir and fearlessly roamed the campground during daylight hours.

Vallieres and Wenum also described some interesting cases of resilient bears, like a female with two cubs that lived for 145 days within the same six square miles.

A female grizzly and her two cubs trapped near the Flathead River east of Kalispell. The bears were relocated. Courtesy photo

They highlighted the success of community initiatives, like the fifth annual fruit drive for the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, which encourages the public to pick and donate fruit. Not only does this provide the center with support, but it also decreases bear attractants on homeowners’ properties.

“It’s a really great way for people to connect,” Vallieres said. “It’s a good way to give back to the bears that unfortunately, are no longer able to be out in the wild; and it’s a really good incentive to try and keep our wild bears wild and keep them out of trouble.”

Vallieres concluded by re-emphasizing FWP’s new initiatives to reduce human-bear conflict, such as installing and troubleshooting electric fences as well as partnering with USDA Wildlife Services to teach kids how to properly secure livestock. They also work with cities like Columbia Falls to establish permanent garbage ordinances and advertise external initiatives, like Defenders of Wildlife’s cost-share program.

“Properly securing the attractants and increasing education is how we will protect future generations of bears,” she concluded.

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