Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A man in the Rattlesnake neighborhood was cutting wood below his apple tree this fall when he felt something between his legs. Looking down, it was a black bear reaching for a fallen apple.

Jamie Jonkel, a bear biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks shared the story on Monday night, when he and Chris Servheen, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Grizzly Bear coordinator and member of the Missoula Bear Smart Working Group, urged local officials to get serious about addressing the urban attractants that lure wild bears.

On a unanimous vote, the city and county jointly adopted a Bear Smart resolution, setting the stage to begin implementing Bear Smart policies and regulations.

“We have between 150 to 200 bears in the Missoula Valley right now,” said Servheen. “They're all black bears right now, but there may be grizzly bears here that we don't know about.”

With the safety of both humans and bears in mind, the Bear Smart Working Group has offered up a hazard assessment plan that would, if implemented, address what experts describe as a dire situation.

While Missoula will always have bears given the natural foods along the river, the easy pickings of apples, bird seed, pet food and trash has lured too many bears into the urban areas of the city.

“Missoula has bears and we're having more bears all the time,” said Servheen. “The situation is aggravated by the fact that more and more people are moving into Missoula, and most of these people don't know anything about living with bears at all, or living with wildlife in general.”

Areas where bear-human conflicts are highest.
Areas where bear-human conflicts are highest.

While most of the known bears are black bears, several grizzlies have been spotted around Missoula. Two were recently caught in Lolo, where they were eating Bitterroot Valley apples. The bears were young and “just trying to make a living,” but having bears in urban areas often spells the end of the bear.

“The Missoula Valley is a death trap for bears. A lot of bears get into conflicts and they have to be killed," said Servheen. "This is a poor image for Missoula as a community that's uncaring about wildlife and proper sanitation in wildlife habitat. We think the management plan has all the solutions out there that can really reduce these problems.”

The hazard assessment completed by the working group identifies the problems in the valley related to bears and where those problems exist. Nearly half of all conflicts are due to garbage, and it's one of the easy areas where experts believe the city can make progress.

Over the coming months, elected officials will consider implementing recommendations within the plan, could require such things as bear-proof garbage bins for those living in the bear buffer zone. The bins cost roughly $1 more a week over a standard bin, and they could help save a bear's life.

It could also bring fewer bears into Missoula, which is also good for the city's human occupants.

“We'll probably be seeing a lot more black bears and grizzly bears here in the valley,” said Jonkel. “If you're walking in Greenough Park, you should be carrying bear spray. If you live in the Rattlesnake residential area and are walking your kids to school, you should be carrying bear spray. That's how many bears there are in the Rattlesnake. I'm estimating 40 to 50 bears in the rattlesnake right now.”

Adding to the problem this year is a lack of natural food in the wild surrounding Missoula. Bears are hungry and fall is approaching, leading to a condition Jonkel described as hyperphagia, or excessive hunger.

“Bears are in an extreme situation because of a lack of natural foods. They're going through hyperphagia, where all they do is think about food and this year, we're seeing extreme hyperphagia,” Jonkel said. “If they're in a patch of clover and you're banging pots and pans, most of them are just ignoring you so they can eat the clover or dandelions on your heavily watered lawn.”

Both city and county officials, along with vocal members of the public, backed Monday night's resolution, calling it an easy step to begin making meaningful change.

Now that it's adopted, the city and county will consider future policies that are intended to reduce attractants and maintain “a harmonious natural and built environment.”

“We deeply support bears staying wild and humans staying safe,” said Nancy Heil with the Rattlesnake Creek Watershed Group. “Addressing this is going to take all of us working together. This sets the stage for additional work.”