The City of Missoula is one step closer to being an official Bear Smart community. The question remains as to how to get Missoulians to support the effort.

On Wednesday, two members of the Missoula Bear Smart Working Group told the Missoula City Council’s Committee of the Whole that they’ve completed a Missoula area Bear Hazard Assessment and are now taking the next step of drafting a Bear Conflict Management Plan, which should be done by the fall.

Chris Servheen, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Grizzly Bear coordinator and Missoula Bear Smart Working Group member, said the big takeaway from the Hazard Assessment is that bears aren’t the problem. Human behavior is the problem.

“There’s been an issue with bears in Missoula for some time. The issue is not getting any better. In fact, it’s getting worse. We’re getting more and more bears in more and more places,” Servheen said. “This is an established process, and the first process is to develop a hazard assessment that talks about where the problems are and what the problems are.”

Bear conflict can occur anywhere in Missoula, as evidenced by the “Hip Strip Bear,” who frequents the Clark Fork River riparian corridor downtown near the Bear Tracks Bridge.

But the Hazard Assessment has identified the creek drainages around Missoula as the most high-risk areas for bear conflict, including the Rattlesnake Creek, Grant Creek, Pattee Canyon, O’Brien Creek and East Missoula. Those are most of the areas that have kept Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear biologist Jamie Jonkel hopping.

“The black bear stuff is just going nuts around Missoula and has been for about the last month,” said Jonkel, who is also a Missoula Bear Smart Working Group member. “Rattlesnake Creek has got quite a bit of activity. But the majority of the bears from the Rattlesnake area have moved over into Piltzville, Bonner, Milltown, West Riverside, East Missoula area, and that’s where the pulse of activity is now. I probably had about 25 emails, 20 calls, and 20 texts last night.”

Jonkel added that, in addition to a grizzly raiding trash cans in the Potomac area, he’s had a report of a small grizzly up the Blackfoot drainage that he thinks might be a sibling of the two young grizzlies caught a few weeks ago. Together, they might be the three cubs belonging to the grizzly sow who roamed Missoula’s North Hills last year, but Jonkel hasn’t been able to verify that.

A black bear finds a slender meal. (FWP)
A black bear finds a slender meal. (FWP)

The hazard assessment found the biggest contributor to human-bear conflict in the Missoula area is unsecured garbage, which is an attractant for bears. The assessment found that trash accounts for about half of the conflict problems, followed by 16% due to bird feeders and 8% each for fruit trees and livestock/pet food. Adding to the problem is the fact that the city doesn’t require garbage pickup, so some residents store huge amounts of garbage on their property before taking it to the dump, Servheen said.

Servheen said the Missoula Bear Smart Working Group will present the Bear Conflict Management Plan to the city before sending it out to the public so the city can figure out which solutions might work best. The plan will include the strategies that have been used in other cities, such as Whitefish and Red Lodge.

“There are ways to secure your garbage. You don’t have to feed birds in the summertime. And don’t feed your pets outside. All these things are solutions, and they’re not incredibly complex solutions. But what’s required is that people be part of the solution,” Servheen said. “We will have a proposed approach to build a vision for Missoula about how we want to be a community that is friendly to the animals we live with. We live in bear habitat – they were here before we got here.”

City councilmember Kristen Jordan asked whether the city should be much more diligent about citing people who leave their garbage out for days in unsecured trash bins, and if so, should the city hire more enforcement.

Jonkel said more manpower would be needed because Animal Control does all the ticketing within the Missoula city limits, and it’s stretched thin already. He suggested that FWP might be able to work with the city to fund a seasonal position. A few citizen volunteers patrol the neighborhoods and report violators.

City councilmember Daniel Carlino asked whether the city and county could pass a resolution requiring residents to use bear-resistant containers, especially in high-risk areas.

Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent said the council has had previous discussions about such a requirement, but they never got far, partly because of cost concerns. Renting a bear-resistant container from Republic Services costs an extra $5 a month. Grizzly Disposal also has bear bins, but they are not certified bear-resistant, Jonkel said.

“There’s also the concern that the city doesn’t own either the landfill or either of the garbage companies. So trying to mandate a private entity that is actually allowed to enter the market by the public service commission – the city has no authority or review,” Nugent said. “I don’t think it’s been researched in detail as to whether the power exists. There’s no explicit authorization.”

Jonkel said Republic Services manager Chad Bauer has said Republic Services would cooperate with the city-county if garbage pickup were made mandatory.

The city has tougher requirements for garbage enclosures on new commercial properties. Nugent said it’s likely that the city could implement something similar for private residences. Jonkel requested that a roof be added to the existing commercial requirements to make them bear resistant.

It will still be a few months until the city begins to hash out what steps to take, but Jordan said the solution to reducing conflict is clear.

“We need to base this on science and precedent rather than getting buy-in, because working to get constituent buy-in at 100% or some high rate is going to be really difficult,” Jordan said. “We know how to keep bears safe; we know how to keep our community safe. I would like to do what Whitefish did and say, ‘If you’re in the bear buffer zone, you have to buy a bin.’”

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