Missoula-based bear expert Jamie Jonkel, of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, is measuring this fall's bear conflicts by the height of the stack of paper on his desk. Every call about, say, a bear picking a backyard apple tree is one sheet of paper. "My stack of phone calls is twice as high as it's been in years past...14, 15 inches high," he says.
The stack is testimony to what Jonkel calls an "exceptional" year of conflicts between bears and western Montanans. A greater number of black bears in the Missoula, Bitterroot and upper and lower Clark Fork River valleys are getting into garbage, fruit trees and chicken coops than at any other time in recent memory.
Jonkel blames the weather more than the bears. He attributes much of the problem to the severe frost two Octobers ago that staggered last year's berry crop. This year's deep snowpack and late spring delayed that crop. "As a result, our bears had to change their feeding patterns. When bears do that, they usually come down low where there's a lot of moisture along the creeks and lakeshores—and lo and behold, that's where we live."
The number of conflicts is high all across western Montana as grizzly and black bears scrounge for food before denning. Over the past few weeks, in the northeast corner of the Flathead Valley, FWP biologists captured and relocated at least 10 grizzly bears that got into poultry, livestock, pig feed and fruit. Grizzly Bear Management Biologist Tim Manley says the total number of relocations from that area this season—38—is the most since 2004.
Chickens are becoming increasingly problematic for bear managers. Dale Becker, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' wildlife program manager, says conflicts between bears and livestock, especially chickens, began to spike last year on the Flathead Reservation. "Things just went totally haywire," he says. "I'm not sure whether it's the economy or what, but it seemed like a whole lot of people along the Mission Front, and I'm sure other places too, decided to start raising chickens."
"The sad part," Becker adds, "is that these females are keying in on this easy food source, and ingraining the memory of that—where to go to find it, and what time of year to show up there—in these young bears."