Bearing down 

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

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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."

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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."

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