Even before we had to scrape the first of the season’s frost off our windshield, Missoula was abuzz with bruin sightings. Each year bears that spend their summers feeding on berries in the forests near town wander into the city to fatten themselves on Missoula’s hearty crop of apples, pears, and the occasional vegetable garden or garbage can.
We first heard bears were back in early September after a jogger startled four black bears while running her favorite route near Lincoln Hills Drive.
A week later one of our very own Indy staffers was walking his dog when the pooch happened upon a large male bear hiding in serviceberry bushes beneath a backyard apple tree, presumably feeding on the fallen fist-sized fruit. Said pooch gave chase but lost interest after pursuing the presumably panicked bear less than 30 yards.
Encounters like these are frightening and sometimes exhilarating, but they’re also the kinds of encounters Chuck Jonkel and the folks at Missoula’s Great Bear Foundation are hoping to prevent with their annual apple-picking outings. Each evening Jonkel and a crew of volunteers roam the Rattlesnake Valley harvesting apples in “problem areas” where bears are most likely to loiter as they fatten up before their hibernation ahead.
“There’s no food in the high country,” says Jonkel as he reaches high into an apple tree with a hooked pole on a recent apple-picking outing. “But they’re not starving or anything because there are plenty of apples.”
Jonkel gives the pole a few hard shakes and hundreds of red and green fruit rain down (a good number of which plop in the fresh piles of bear dung scattered throughout the yard).
An hour later Jonkel’s Forest Service-green truck is filled with boxes of fruit and the crew heads back to town to turn it into juice, or pie or cobbler or whatever else might go well with ice cream. Before the best part of the afternoon is over, five pickers had rid four trees of fruit and pressed nearly eight gallons of cider.
But for all the effort Jonkel and his volunteers go through to glean Missoula’s forgotten fruit each year, there are plenty of homeowners that appear to be too careless to pick their trees. A Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear manager recently reported that he gets 20 to 30 calls per day from people who have bears in their yard.
Seeing the occasional bear roaming yards in the Garden City is one of the things we love about this town, but it’s also potentially hazardous—especially for the bears. Heck, if you don’t want the fruit, bring ’em down. We’ve got a hankering for some homegrown hard cider.