The staffers at Animal Control must feel as if they work at Missoula's DirecTV call center. Lately they're fielding hundreds of calls a day, according to Jim Carlson of the Missoula City-County Health Department, with the main complaint being black bears in the Rattlesnake ransacking garbage cans and gorging around fruit trees.
"I live in the lower Rattlesnake," Carlson says, "and we've had bears in the alleys and in the fruit trees in the neighborhood virtually every night for the past couple of weeks, and it's a real sad thing to see so many wild animals being habituated to food sources in the city."
But Animal Control finds itself unable to do much about it. The department's four officers are responsible for dealing with a wide range of animal issues throughout the county, while its four kennel attendants run an animal shelter on Butler Creek Road, and also handle dispatch and some administrative functions.
Animal Control does have a sympathizer on City Council. Ward 1 Councilman Dave Strohmaier, who raised the issue during a Sept. 29 committee meeting, wants to boost the department's efficacy, both by increasing staffing in the long term (he's targeting the FY 2012 budget), and reducing the number of complaints in the short term. The latter objective, he says, requires Rattlesnake residents to be smarter about how they dispose of their garbage.
"Garbage is really at the root of many of the bear encounters I'm seeing in my ward," he says.
Strohmaier proposes, for example, that Animal Control begins random patrols looking for garbage ordinance violations.
"My hope," he says, "would be that investing a little more time proactively right now might garner dividends in terms of fewer citizen complaints, which by then it's usually too late."
But complaints, as Carlson points out, aren't the only thing the city's trying to avoid.
"At some point, there's going to be more than just an issue of having to destroy (a bear)," Carlson says. "There's a potential for a bad outcome with a human and bear interaction."