Expanding Missoula’s bear aware zone would require additional patrols
Bonnie Pace and Luke Kuennen
Corey Kreidler was cruising a Rattlesnake neighborhood in October when he came upon an alley strewn with garbage. The Missoula Animal Control officer knew the culprit. A bear had been there.
Kreidler, who left his job later that month, patrolled the neighborhood once a week looking for residents who kept garbage outside in trash cans that were not bear-proof. He often found ripped open trash bags and other evidence that bears had been feeding on trash.
If a recent local resolution becomes binding, animal control officers like Kreidler may soon be patrolling a much larger area of town.
In October, the Missoula City Council and the Missoula County Commissioners unanimously approved adopting a bear smart resolution that would require a larger number of residents in Missoula and Missoula County to remove garbage, birdfeeders, livestock and pet food, tree fruit and unsecured outdoor freezers.
The proposed expansion of the bear buffer zone would more than quadruple the size of the current area.
But in order for the expanded bear buffer zone to work, officials say the city will need to hire more animal control officers to patrol and give warnings and citations to people who break the rules.
In neighborhoods like the Rattlesnake and Miller Creek, residents who violate the rules of the current zone face $50 fines and a misdemeanor conviction. Offenders are sent written warnings for a first offense.
Despite what Kreidler and others said are a high number of offenders, Missoula Animal Control issued only 30 citations between 2018 and 2022, according to court records. Of those 30, eight were repeat offenders.
Maury Valett, a 10-year Rattlesnake neighborhood resident, is one of them. In 2018, he received a ticket for violating the trash ordinance, which he said he didn’t know about.
“I got a ticket for doing what? Nobody told me what I did wrong,” Valett said. “I ended up having to get one of those bearproof trash cans.”
Valett is glad he has the trash can. He often sees garbage spread all over the alleys in the Rattlesnake after bears have been through the area when he walks his dogs in the morning.
The bears “knocked our garbage can over every goddamn night there in October,” Valett said. “They go through a circuit.”
Citizens and experts at the October 3 City Council meeting spoke in favor of the measure to expand the bear buffer zone. But employees of the Missoula City-County Animal Control office, who are also in favor of the measure, said the office lacks staffing to enforce the ordinance.
There’s only one officer tasked with the bear patrols, said Holli Hargrove, the manager of Missoula Animal Control Services. That officer is also charged with responding to complaints such as barking dogs and animal bites.
“That would be a lot for just our department to patrol in addition to all the other calls we field in our department,” Hargrove said.
Jamie Jonkel, a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Wildlife management specialist, estimates at least three animal control seasonal positions will be needed. He said the cost could be offset by Fish, Wildlife & Parks Wildlife staff spending less time dealing with human-bear conflicts in the area, which amounts to around $50,000 a year.
If the resolution becomes an ordinance, Jonkel suggested the department might look into internships and other options to help enforcement.
The resolution focuses on black bears in the area, but grizzly bears are also a concern for wildlife authorities. Jonkel said grizzly bears are already coming into the Missoula Valley.
“There is a sow and her two cubs inhabiting the North hills and a sow frequents the Rattlesnake area,” Jonkel said.
Two grizzly bears were trapped in October and removed from the Bitterroot Valley between Florence and Lolo and relocated to the Sapphire Mountains. They may have passed through Missoula. Authorities began tracking the pair in early August in the Blackfoot Valley near Bonner.
According to Jonkel, it appears the grizzlies moved from Bonner through the UM area into the Miller Creek Drainage and ended up in the Bitterroot Valley.
Jonkel believes it will take four to five years for all aspects of the resolution to become an official ordinance, but the agency can accomplish portions of it each year. Expanding the bear buffer zone and enforcing the requirements would be the first and most important piece to work on. Jonkel hopes it will go into effect next year.
“We’re in the sausage making period where we have to roll up our sleeves and get to work,” Jonkel said.