Rattlesnake homeowner Paul Donaldson remembers the details vividly: A black bear ripped the stinking compost bin from its moorings, then nosed and clawed until the round tumbler finally rolled down the grassy hill, away from Donaldson’s home and toward Rattlesnake Creek.
“We watched him push it between his legs, like a circus bear, or a dung beetle,” says Donaldson. “It was pretty funny.”
Donaldson is accustomed to seeing bears in his yard, and just this week found another pile of bear scat just feet from his kid’s trampoline. The construction contractor has seen as many as three bears in his front yard at once.
City Councilwoman Pam Walzer says she’s used to hearing stories like Donaldson’s. As chair of the city’s Urban Wildlife Subcommittee and a representative of Ward 2, Walzer’s gathered countless stories of bear interactions from her constituents, from stepping in bear scat during dog walks to bears following pizza deliveries into homes.
“Bears are prowling the alleys for food in the Rattlesnake,” she says.
Left unchanged, Walzer says this is a recipe for trouble. But instead of changing bear behavior, the City Council and wildlife managers are attempting to change how people deal with garbage, compost and any other bear attractants through a modification of the city’s garbage ordinance.
Bears primarily follow their noses into Missoula via the Rattlesnake, Grant, Miller and O’Brien creek drainages. By creating a “Bear Conflict Buffer Zone” around the city, officials hope to establish a 200- to 300-yard wide band where bear resistant containers and behaviors are mandatory—but not expensive.
“We’re trying to add no additional cost to the average homeowner,” Walzer says, adding that the public and City Council still have to approve the ordinance. “They don’t have to buy or rent an expensive bear-proof container, they just have to wait until the morning of [garbage] pick-up before putting out food waste.”
Once the buffer is clear of attractants, the rest of the city will theoretically be free of bears—as long as buffer zone residents play by the rules. For Missoula’s bears, it’s a matter of life and death.
“Instead of trapping and killing bears that get into garbage,” says Walzer, “we’re trying to train humans to not put attractants out.”