Can the Rattlesnake and bears live in peace? 

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) says that it has had to remove more than 10 black bears from the Rattlesnake Valley this summer, and as trees begin to bear fruit, they expect the problem to only get worse.

“When they stumble on an apple tree, it’s like a gift from the bear god,” says James Jonkel, an FWP wildlife conflict specialist.

The Rattlesnake is a lush wilderness area, home to a large number of black bears. It is also a strip of humanity cut off from Missoula by I-90 on one side and the Clark Fork River on the other. Because of the relative remoteness of the area, bears are more comfortable venturing near humanity here than anywhere else in town.

Black bears average between 125 to 175 pounds, but can grow as large as 500 pounds. While their top speed is a matter of debate, they travel up and down mountain passes every day, and are in much better shape than most humans, Jonkel says.

Bears typically gorge themselves on chokecherry and serviceberry bushes in late summer and early autumn. While many stay in the wilderness area north of the Rattlesnake, the presence of easy food near humans is sometimes too strong a draw for some of our ursine neighbors. Bird feeders, garbage and fruit-bearing trees all make for easy pickings.

“The whole problem could be solved by keeping garbage and other attractants contained during peak bear season,” Jonkel says. The first thing Fish and Wildlife does when it receives a bear call is find out what attracted the bear and try to contain the attractant. This might be as simple as keeping dog food indoors or storing garbage in the garage until pickup day.

In the case of Rattlesnake School and other locations with a large amount of wet garbage, the Department has worked with the city’s waste management firm BFI to get bear-proof dumpsters and asked that wet garbage be separated from dry to make it less attractive to would-be scavengers.

If removing attractants doesn’t discourage a bear, Fish and Wildlife will attempt to trap the animal. The trap, an eight-foot-long cylinder with a door at one end, is baited and deployed in the roaming grounds of the problem bear. Even though bears are smart animals, they tend to think with their stomachs, Jonkel says, and the traps are usually effective.

Sometimes though, merely trapping the bear isn’t enough. Only once this year, FWP has been forced to destroy a problem bear. This usually only happens when a bear can’t take no for an answer, and begins to cause major property damage in search of food.

“We’ll always have rogue bears that want the easy life,” Jonkel says. “Just like some humans.”

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