Bearing down 

Experts put an eventful–and sometimes fatal–season of bear activity into perspective

Chuck Jonkel learned long ago about the public's deep fascination with bears. Before he switched the focus of his work to the animal in 1959, he saw bears mostly as a nuisance. While working toward his master's degree in zoology at the University of British Columbia, he was dismayed to find black bears ruining his traplines, which he used to catch and study pine martens. But his constant encounters began to intrigue people around him.

"I'd stop somewhere for coffee and three people would run over and want to talk about bears," says Jonkel, a now 80-year-old biologist, bear expert and founder of the Great Bear Foundation. "They're very powerful for people. And that's their burden."

The love-hate feelings humans have for bears started as soon as the two first interacted, explains Jonkel, and it continues today. In fact, a flurry of summer incidents throughout Montana has made the issue of coexisting with bears more prominent than usual.

Multiple bears have been reported in the Rattlesnake area this season, including a bear trying to break into an apartment on Aug. 5. Another bear was trapped in Greenough Park on July 9 when it started getting into garbage. On Sept. 15, in Missoula, a black bear was removed near the intersection of Reserve and Brooks exactly a week after another bear was tranquilized downtown, just off East Broadway. The latter's much-publicized fall from a tree was captured by a Missoulian photographer and featured by media outlets across the country.

click to enlarge Mike Madel, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear manager specialist, places a radio collar on a sub-adult grizzly bear on the Rocky Mountain Front. GPS collars are one of several technologies used for management, along with DNA and isotope data taken from bear hair. - PHOTO COURTESY MIKE MODEL
  • Photo courtesy Mike Model
  • Mike Madel, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear manager specialist, places a radio collar on a sub-adult grizzly bear on the Rocky Mountain Front. GPS collars are one of several technologies used for management, along with DNA and isotope data taken from bear hair.

The activity has been even more noticeable in other parts of the state. During the second week of September, bear managers had to remove five grizzlies in seven days from the Flathead Valley. On July 24, television personality and zookeeper Jack Hanna was one of five people in Glacier National Park to report pepper-spraying bears while hiking in the park. Yellowstone National Park representatives reported over the summer that policing bear jams has become a top priority for park officials, as they're seeing more and more animals appear on roadsides. One black bear in Gardiner, just outside of Yellowstone, actually learned to open car doors. He'd broken into a dozen vehicles from the last week of August through the first week of September before accidentally getting trapped in a van when the door slid closed behind him.

All this activity has kept Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) busy with about 30 phone calls a day for bears alone—a number that managers often experience in the fall, but that far exceeds the norm for spring and summer.

"We've got a lot of bears this year that are just roaming all over and getting into all kinds of trouble, turning up in all kinds of strange places," says Jonkel. "And we'll probably keep seeing that right up until the snow flies."

Summer was especially tragic in the Yellowstone area. On June 17, a 70-year-old man was killed by a grizzly while walking alone in the Kitty Creek drainage of the Shoshone National Forest near the park's east entrance. On July 28, another man was killed, this time in the Soda Butte Campground just outside the park. The last fatal grizzly bear attack in all of Montana happened in 2001, and before that, in 1986.

The increase in reported bear-related incidents raises obvious concerns over why, whether anything is to blame, and what bear managers plan to do to address the situation. Jonkel has heard all of the emotionally charged questions and, like many experts, preaches patience. The philosophy behind bear management hasn't changed much over the years. What has changed is the increase in bear and human populations, and the likelihood that seasons like this one will continue.

"The job is getting bigger as the bears move into new areas," says Jonkel. "There's some really great work going on, but there are still ranchers who don't want to cooperate and some bears still doing everything wrong...Bears have a lot of baggage."

•••

One of the first misunderstandings with bears occurred when naturalist George Ord took the term "grizzly," meaning gray-haired, to mean "grisly," and stuck the bear forever with the Latin name horribilis. That was in 1815, a decade after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark journeyed west into a landscape populated by an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears. In the years that followed, western expansion and a general conquering attitude toward nature led to the death of enough bears that 31 of the 37 grizzly populations recorded in 1922 were killed off by 1975. That was the year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grizzly bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which placed them under federal protection. In 1981, the Fish & Wildlife Service took the next step and hired University of Montana graduate Chris Servheen to spearhead grizzly bear recovery in the lower 48 states.

click to enlarge This adult black bear and three cubs foraged near Greenough Park in Missoula in 2008. This year, Fish, Wildlife & Parks received an extraordinary 30 phone calls a day, some of which were for bears spotted in the Rattlesnake and other residential areas. - PHOTO COURTESY AARON TEASDALE
  • Photo courtesy Aaron Teasdale
  • This adult black bear and three cubs foraged near Greenough Park in Missoula in 2008. This year, Fish, Wildlife & Parks received an extraordinary 30 phone calls a day, some of which were for bears spotted in the Rattlesnake and other residential areas.

Servheen's efforts proved successful, and grizzly populations gradually rebounded. The 600 grizzlies in Yellowstone and the 800 in the Glacier and Bob Marshall ecosystem are the two largest populations in Montana, and they're about three times as large as they were 30 years ago. Not only that, but because grizzlies are federally protected, they have begun to safely move out of the mountains and into new areas.

In the last five years, in areas like Choteau, Servheen has seen grizzlies moving past the edge of the Rocky Mountain Front farther and farther to the east of Highway 89. Grizzlies are showing up around Fort Benton and other parts of the eastern Montana prairies and sagebrush landscapes. As they enter agricultural valleys, food sources like berries and bark become scarce. The shortage makes livestock predation and ransacking of grain more common.

"We have a very successful bear program now where the bears are really doing well," says Servheen, who still serves as U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator. "We have bears reoccupying habitats now that they've been gone from for 100 years. But as they reoccupy those places the people living there start encountering more and more of them."

Black bears don't have the same kind of politically charged history as grizzlies, but they can create the same types of problems for bear managers depending on the weather and food sources. This year, in particular, has been busy. An early spring thaw brought all kinds of bears out of their mountain dens, but when another heavy snow hit, the bears had to travel down into the valleys to find food. Even after the snow began to melt, a slow year for huckleberries kept bears out of the mountains and near the creek beds eating serviceberries and chokecherries right in the heart of populated areas.

"Our greatest challenge is on the edge where public land meets private land," says Servheen. "That dynamic edge ecosystem is the place where we spend a lot of our time, where we're trying to get a hold of these bears being taught things like getting to bird feeders and hummingbird feeders.

"We're trying to teach people rather than bears," he adds. "One would think that one species is smarter than the other, but often we wonder."

•••

Chris Servheen is not a fan of the backyard chicken movement. He and the seven state bear managers he works with have had to respond to numerous calls over the last few years when bears—black and grizzly—ended up storming chicken coops.

"Everybody decided that they wanted to be a hobby farmer with chickens and live up the Rattlesnake or up Grant Creek," says Servheen. "What do they think is going to happen when they have all this chicken feed and chickens out there? They call and say, 'There's bears in my chickens.' Well, yeah."

In some cases, landowners legally allowed to defend their livestock shot the bears. Other bears have been removed from farm areas by FWP, only to return to a different nearby yard looking for more. On Sept. 15, FWP officials captured a female with two cubs in Missoula after a particularly invasive rampage. The trio started by hitting local chicken coops and, in just a matter of days, moved to dog food, horse grain and garbage. The trio also broke into sheds to get at compost and popped windows off of cars to get at birdseed. FWP considered the bears conditioned to unnatural foods and all three ended up getting shipped to the Oklahoma Zoo.

Even when FWP is able to relocate bears in the wild, it's not an ideal—or permanent—solution. The bears are moved from their home range and placed in an area where they're stressed out and don't know their food sources, says Servheen. It's why bear managers emphasize preventative measures as the best option.

click to enlarge One of the worst attractors bear managers have had to deal with is bird feeders. A new site called Missoulabears.org allows people to anonymously report any severe attractants in their neighborhood, like low-hanging bird feeders, that may be causing bear conflicts. - PHOTO COURTESY BOB WIESNER
  • Photo courtesy Bob Wiesner
  • One of the worst attractors bear managers have had to deal with is bird feeders. A new site called Missoulabears.org allows people to anonymously report any severe attractants in their neighborhood, like low-hanging bird feeders, that may be causing bear conflicts.

"You can't expect that the bears won't get into your chickens or garbage and you can't expect that we're going to come trap all the bears and make them disappear," Servheen says. "They'll come back. And, eventually, if this continues, these bears die. As bear managers we'd like to dump the dead bear out in front of people's yards and say, 'You left your garbage out at night instead of putting it out in the morning. We moved him a couple of times, he came back again and now he's dead. So you bury him.'"

One of the worst bear attractors turns out to be simple bird feeders. Jamie Jonkel, a bear manager specialist for FWP Region 2, and Chuck Jonkel's son, says the process of unwittingly training bears to become habituated with something like a bird feeder is a common mistake. In an attempt to keep bears away from such things, Jonkel says people's first mistake is to place them near the house, because a bear would never come so close.

"Well, in essence, what they do is train these bears to come onto porches, which is where they often end up finding the pet food as well," Jamie Jonkel says.

Another common mistake involves people putting their garbage or birdseed out only during the day, thinking bears only come by at night. But the bears adapt.

"Instead of wandering around at night in the cover of darkness, next thing you know you've got multiple bears wandering around in the daylight hours," says Jamie Jonkel. "And then what do they do? They put the garbage or bird feeder inside their garage and leave the door open, and the bear goes into the garage. So then they close the door, and what happens? The bear learns to open doors. That's usually the process. You can turn an adult bear that has never gotten in trouble in his life, in a dry year, in a bad food year, into a holy terror in a matter of two weeks."

In June, a black bear bit a man through his tent outside of St. Regis, mangling the man's earlobe to the extent that he required 21 stitches. At first, the incident seemed oddly unprovoked considering the two campers had kept a clean site. However, FWP noticed 150 yards from the incident was an older, abandoned site littered with garbage. Dog food covered the ground, as did canned goods with bear bites.

"She had bitten through these cans and so she was biting through the tent to see what she could find, and she happened to bite this guy," says Servheen. "After they find food at a campsite, bears learn that a good place to look for food is every campground they can find. We inherit the problems created by somebody else. And for that, she was captured and killed."

•••

Bear managers follow a policy erring on the side of public safety, meaning their decision to capture, relocate and, if necessary, destroy problem bears often conflicts with the beliefs of some bear advocates.

Last year, on Aug. 17, rangers killed a 17-year-old grizzly dubbed the Oldman Lake Bear after she was deemed too comfortable with people in and around Glacier National Park's Oldman Lake Campground. One of her cubs also died, accidentally, after being tranquilized, and the other was sent to the Bronx Zoo. While bear managers take the stance that she had become dangerously conditioned, others, like Chuck Jonkel, feel she died unnecessarily.

"It was her area," Chuck Jonkel says. "She was looking in a tent somebody had put in her trail. It was her home. The proper response should have been to close the area and destroy that campground and maybe even take the trail out. Instead, they killed three bears."

The public outcry and critical comments from wildlife advocates in this high-profile case echoed Jonkel's concerns. That outrage led to an official board of review, which eventually ruled in favor of park management and recommended modifying the definitions of a problem bear. Terms like "conditioned" and "habituated" went from describing bears that show aggressive behavior toward people or steal food, to bears that merely touch tents and backpacks in campgrounds, or those who approach people, even without incident. The altered definitions leave some bear advocates fearful that animals may be removed or destroyed hastily.

Jonkel's criticism of the Oldman Lake Bear killing speaks to a common refrain from most bear experts: Given the choice, they'd much rather move people out of harm's way than go through the tricky process of moving bears out of their natural habitat. Of course, that's easier said than done.

"Some of the worst problems come from people who move in from out of state and don't have knowledge about wildlife," says Servheen. "Those tend to be the worst. They're the ones who build a big house in a place that's never had a big house and then they put up bird feeders and they want a garden and they have chickens—they want to go back to the land and all this jazz and then a bear shows up. Those are the ones we want to tell to move when they call. But we can't."

click to enlarge Jamie Jonkel, a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear manager specialist works with groups like the Blackfoot Challenge to put up electric fences and install bear-resistant containers in order to keep bears out of people’s livestock and garbage. - PHOTO COURTESY BOB WIESNER
  • Photo courtesy Bob Wiesner
  • Jamie Jonkel, a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear manager specialist works with groups like the Blackfoot Challenge to put up electric fences and install bear-resistant containers in order to keep bears out of people’s livestock and garbage.

Instead, managers have found other ways to tackle the bear problems. Wildlife managers started working with garbage companies to develop better bear resistant containers. For instance, Jamie Jonkel points to Don Felstet of Felstet Disposal, who designed a top-level bear resistant garbage can made from plastic, and created a bear resistant lid that slides over the top of garbage trucks and keeps garbage contained during pickups.

The Missoula City Council took an important step in February to avoid human-bear conflicts by passing a bear buffer garbage ordinance. The new law sets strict requirements on how garbage is moved and stored in certain areas of the city in order to limit attractants and discourage bears from moving farther into town.

Jamie Jonkel has also been able to get an intern to work on a website with bear updates and a public reporting form. Erin Edge moderates Missoulabears.org, a site where people can get bear information and report any neighborhood attractants that might cause bear conflicts.

"You can file a report anonymously," says Jamie Jonkel of the site. "You can say, 'Look, I love my neighbor. She's sweet and she makes me cookies, but she has 47 birdfeeders and she has five salt licks and she's sucking in every bear in the country.'"

In an attempt to discourage bears from tempting attractants like livestock and fruit trees, Jamie Jonkel and bear specialist Bob Wiesner also participate with organizations like the Blackfoot Challenge that help fund and install electric fences. In the Blackfoot Valley, for instance, sheep, cows, chickens, bees and bears co-exist in a relatively peaceful manner. Since working on bear issues over the past decade, the Blackfoot Challenge has installed 14,000 linear feet of bear fencing and 40 bear resistant dumpsters.

"I work with those guys hand-in-hand and we have done phenomenal proactive work in the Blackfoot Valley," says Jamie Jonkel. "Our conflicts have just about been nil."

•••

After the fatality at the Soda Butte Campground near Yellowstone, Chris Servheen and other bear biologists released a 70-page report of the incident that showcased how the latest technological tools are helping to track the animal. The report reads like a forensic analysis for any crime, where evidence at the scene is analyzed to get a picture of what might have happened. With DNA technology, officials tracked down and destroyed the culprit bear; her three cubs were sent to a Billings zoo. Despite the fact the motive for the attacks remains a mystery, these technologies ruled out some possible motives that might have otherwise seemed likely.

click to enlarge Black bears that continually get into garbage are considered “food conditioned” and are usually removed—often far from their home range. “You can’t expect that the bears won’t get into your chickens or garbage, and you can’t expect that we’re going to come trap all the bears and make them disappear,” says Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. - PHOTO COURTESY BOB WIESNER
  • Photo courtesy Bob Wiesner
  • Black bears that continually get into garbage are considered “food conditioned” and are usually removed—often far from their home range. “You can’t expect that the bears won’t get into your chickens or garbage, and you can’t expect that we’re going to come trap all the bears and make them disappear,” says Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For instance, isotope analysis is one of the newest technologies used in bear biology. Analysis of a single piece of bear hair can tell you what the bear has eaten throughout the spring, including whether or not it's lived on natural food sources or garbage. If a bear is eating garbage, carbon 4, an isotope associated with corn, will show up in the analysis. Since corn isn't found naturally in the wild, and because it's generally connected with corn sweetener, dog food and cattle feed, the presence of that isotope identifies a garbage bear.

Dividing the hair into sections shows what the bear ate in early spring (at the tip of the hair) and what the bear most recently ate (at the root of the hair). Biologists found no carbon 4 in the Soda Butte bear. In fact, her hair revealed a diet that was mainly plant-based.

"It was important to this investigation because this was an unmarked bear at Soda Butte, so we didn't know her," says Servheen. "She'd never been caught before. Isotopes told us she wasn't a garbage bear."

Speculation that she might have been unusually hungry or stressed by having cubs to feed during a challenging food season also didn't hold up. Poor food years are cyclical and therefore not uncommon for bears to deal with, according to the report. A bear with three cubs to feed is also not uncommon. Even the fact that this particular bear might have been hungry—she was on the lower end of her weight scale—isn't a precursor to predation or attacks on humans.

"There's no clear explanation, no cause and effect that we could find," says Servheen. "Here's a bear who probably lived in the Cooke City area her whole life and at 2 in the morning on the 28th of July, she started going into tents. She went into three different tents starting at 2 in the morning and we don't know why she did that. It's a very strange case."

Accessing the genotype information from bear hair can do more than just accurately match a bear to an incident like Soda Butte—it may be the new wave in monitoring grizzly populations. Doctorate candidate Jeffrey Stetz, Katherine Kendall of the U.S. Geological Survey's Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center and Servheen are undertaking a three-year DNA study, which seeks to identify population trends and individual bears by the end of 2011.

But until that technology proves reliable, bear managers continue to rely on GPS tracking. The first collars used radio tracking and only provided managers with a general idea of where bears were a couple times a week at a certain hour, and only in daylight and good weather. GPS tracks the bears roughly every hour, 24 hours a day, no matter what the conditions. Despite the invasive nature of capturing, sedating and collaring bears before releasing them back into the wild, biologists can now better understand bear behavior.

"Now we know that they really behave differently in the dark than during the daytime," says Servheen. "This is probably the biggest advance in technology we have."

•••

Chuck Jonkel adheres to a philosophy he calls "sittin' and whittlin'." When he first started working with polar bears he spent time talking with local communities to try and figure out how they interacted with the species. In a little settlement called Port Severn on the southern tip of the Hudson Bay in northeastern Canada, he stopped some local hunters to find out if he could look at any bear skulls they might have. The locals were suspicious of him as an outsider, Jonkel recalls, and denied that there were even any polar bears nearby.

"Well, Christ, I could see some polar bears over their shoulders," says Jonkel. Finally, the men agreed to meet with Jonkel the next day. But when Jonkel showed up to talk with the hunters they didn't want to talk about bears—they just wanted to talk about Jonkel and how he had gotten through life without a flock of children. Jonkel ignored the question and asked again about the bears, but the locals persisted with talk of babies. Turns out, Jonkel realized, they wanted family planning advice. So, Jonkel talked it through with them the whole day.

"The next day, anything I wanted, they helped me with," he says. "And I call that sittin' and whittlin' because all that time I was whittling a stick."

click to enlarge Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, records the body temperature of an adult female grizzly bear on the Rocky Mountain Front. “We have bears reoccupying habitats now that they’ve been gone from for 100 years,” he says, “but as they reoccupy those places, the people living there start encountering more and more of them.” - PHOTO COURTESY MIKE MODEL
  • Photo courtesy Mike Model
  • Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, records the body temperature of an adult female grizzly bear on the Rocky Mountain Front. “We have bears reoccupying habitats now that they’ve been gone from for 100 years,” he says, “but as they reoccupy those places, the people living there start encountering more and more of them.”

The experience stuck with Jonkel throughout the years, and when it came time to hire bear managers in Montana, he proposed the managers be people who didn't just understand bears, but also understood how to talk with locals on their terms.

"I started telling the state that they needed somebody to represent the bears locally, who knew how to talk with ranchers, knew what a bushel is, and a peck, knew different types of wheat, knew all about the place they are [managing]," he says. "It's gotta be a guy everyone likes, and he's got to drink coffee with folks, and if the neighbor kids need a ride to school they give them a ride. The state kept saying that that's not biologist work. But when you're drinking coffee and talking with a guy who hates grizzly bears, you're doing important work. They finally hired Tim Manley and Mike Madel, who were exactly the right kind of people."

Tim Manley started working for FWP in 1993, and he's seen a major change in attitude toward bears. For example, he recalls a female grizzly he caught on someone's property in the Flathead Valley this summer. It turned out to be the same grizzly he'd caught on the same property a decade before. But this time, things were different.

"Ten years ago they really didn't feel comfortable having grizzlies around," says Manley. "They wanted them gone. They've lost chickens and have had apple trees damaged by grizzlies over the years. But now the chickens have an electric fence around them, he picks his apples so the bears don't get to them, and he doesn't mind having the grizzly bears around. The only reason he called on this one was they have renters in the house next door that have little kids and they were just concerned about the kids."

Bear education appears to be getting better. Recently, a program called the Neighborhood Network popped up as an offshoot of the Blackfoot Challenge. The program provides bear information, activity updates and alerts for various communities encountering bears. Jamie Jonkel says one of the most important aspects of the network is the idea that the solution doesn't always fall to FWP or bear organizations, but within a local community that knows the landscape.

"It's not something we're trying to jam down people's throats," says Jamie Jonkel, "but the idea is that Fish and Game can't have one guy going around telling people what to do. Instead, you get a handful of passionate individuals that are like, 'Fish and Game, we'll show you how to do it.'"

In the past, that might have meant a mass killing of every bear in sight, but these days, it means that when a new family moves into the neighborhood, they get a tutorial from the neighbors on how to store trash or horse feed. It means that, in communities like the Blackfoot Valley, 45 ranchers share knowledge on the best ways to keep attractants under control and that 100 people participate in a phone tree to keep residents updated on bear activity.

In the springs and summers, bear managers are seeing people in their regions frequently assembling for what they call bear socials and bear fairs—a time to drink free beer, eat hot dogs, listen to live music and do some serious talking about how they're going to manage their community for bears. Managers like Jonkel and Servheen insist that, as simple as it sounds, it's these kind of gatherings that instill the power in a community to foster an environment where humans see the value in co-existing with bears, which can, in turn, change everyone's behavior—bears and humans alike.

"What happens is going to be based not on the agencies, and not on the court systems, but on the people who live, work and recreate in bear habitat," says Servheen. "Their decisions will determine the future of bears."

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