Bearing down 

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

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"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."

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