The young female, known as F26, lumbered from her Marshall Canyon den northeast of Missoula on March 1 to become the first of nine GPS-collared urban black bears to emerge from hibernation this spring.
"She's been just kind of moping around for the last month or so," says University of Montana graduate student Jerod Merkle, who is tracking the bears in an attempt to predict bear conflicts in town.
F26 was joined on March 10 by an adult male denned in the Rattlesnake, and then by an adult female five days later. Merkle suspects the rest of them—and Missoula area bears in general—will be back out and foraging by the end of April. All of Merkle's nine bears were originally captured in people's yards.
Over the course of Merkle's three-year research project with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), Merkle has analyzed 900 conflicts and captured 25 bears, but this spring marks the first time he will be able to track so many as they come out of hibernation.
"Some bears that are more habituated and hooked on human foods will come out of their dens and head straight to town," he says. "[But] every bear is different."
According to Merkle, conflicts usually occur in places that feature three environmental factors urban bears prefer: water, large forested areas and home densities of about two per acre.
Those findings hold true for James Jonkel, FWP's bear manager in Missoula, who says he's received calls this spring of bears ransacking bird feeders, chicken feed and garbage cans in the Rattlesnake and Ninemile areas.
Jonkel says that weather plays a large role in when bears move to lower elevations looking for food, and humans can prepare for summer bear activity by bringing bird feeders, pet food and garbage inside before they can attract unwanted guests.
"Every week now we'll see a few more emerging," Jonkel says. "Now is the time people need to start thinking about it."