Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Overwhelmed by black bears, bear biologists around the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem employed some new tools while struggling to keep up with their grizzly bear duties. With bears still active in December, their work isn't over.

Once bears started emerging from hibernation across the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, bear biologists from Eureka to Deer Lodge to Cut Bank hardly had time to sleep this year. They summarized their hectic season at last week’s NCDE subcommittee meeting of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.

“It was a hellish year for black bears for us,” said Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 2 biologist Jamie Jonkel. “We did have a food failure of some sort. We can take stabs at why, but all we know is we were busy from May on. And it’s still going on. In fact, we’ve got a bear working (East Broadway). A ton of black bears working the Rattlesnake. Grizzlies are still very active. We’ve got a lot of grizzly activity in the Blackfoot, and I’m getting a ton of calls from trappers pushing for the season to open before January. I’m having to tell these guys that we still have a lot of grizzlies out.”

Jonkel said bears around the southern end of the NCDE don’t tend to be fully denned until right before Christmas.

The bears are still looking for food, but they’ll be finding a little less of it in the Bitterroot and Deer Lodge valleys. A new carcass pickup program has started in the Bitterroot Valley and the program in the Deer Lodge area has been expanded.

The Blackfoot Challenge started the original carcass pickup program in 2002, and its success in reducing carnivore conflict has slowly encouraged others to follow suit.
That doesn’t mean conflict is eliminated. 

Jonkel told a fateful tale of a grizzly sow that repeatedly crossed Highway 200 in the spring with her two cubs. Eventually, a speeding vehicle killed one cub. Later, Jonkel had to euthanize the sow and remaining cub because they repeatedly killed livestock in the Blackfoot.

“A lot of people in the valley started being critical of themselves and the Blackfoot Challenge as a result of that, thinking they’d failed,” Jonkel said. “I had to have several pep talks with people, saying ‘Even up in these areas in Canada where they have everything running smoothly, they still have individual bears that don’t conform to all the rules we have.’”

The sow and cub were two of Region 2's six bear mortalities. Another two youngsters died after being trapped in the Bitterroot. One cub was missing a paw and the leg was infected so Jonkel had to put him down. Later, the other cub died from eating poisoned pocket gophers. Jonkel hopes he doesn’t have to add any more before the end of the year.

One bright spot this year was Jonkel didn’t have as much trouble with bears in and around Seeley Lake, an area that is “normally a war zone.” In past years, the area had excessive issues with unsecured garbage in campgrounds and around town, which caused a lot of human-bear conflict. But recently, Jonkel told Seeley Lake residents that the bear that killed the bicyclist last year in Ovando likely learned its bad habits in Seeley and that might have made a difference, Jonkel said.

Fortunately, grizzlies around Missoula didn’t seem to be as affected by the food failure as those up north, Jonkel said.

Bear biologists in the Flathead Valley and points north had more issues due to a later mountain snowmelt that kept bears in the valley, the berry crop failure and a surging human population. Region 1 conflict specialist Eric Wenum said Department of Motor Vehicle registration data indicates the Flathead Valley population has grown about 17% since April.

“To say we had a busy season is an understatement,” said Region 1 conflict specialist Justine Vallieres. “We just have a lot more people, we have a lot more bears so we’re seeing an increase in conflicts every year.”

Of the 150 grizzly conflict calls Vallieres had in the northern part of the region, 106 were due to people luring bears in by leaving attractants out. As usual, garbage was the biggest problem, but she saw an uptick in outdoor freezers.

Vallieres said the number of calls dropped significantly once Columbia Falls passed an emergency ordinance to contain attractants. She’s hoping that can continue into the future.

“That was a big step,” Vallieres said. “One female was in and around homes this whole fall – she’s still out right now. I only got one call on her. Looking at where she’s been, it’s pretty shocking. Are people not calling or is she just doing a good job?”

Wenum, who oversees the more populated southern half of Region 1, has fielded 293 conflict calls so far. That could increase because almost 90% of his collared bears are still active. Wemun said his biggest problem was hobby farms. 

“I can go to Murdoch’s and buy a new batch of chickens for $3 a piece. So what do I do? I put no capital expense into securing my $3 chickens,” Wemun said.

Jamie Jonkel several years ago coined chickens as the new trash. He was spot on. Trash is a huge problem, but chickens are definitely right up there as a close second.”
Vallieres and Wenum reported 12 grizzly deaths so far this year in Region 1, with four the result of car collisions and five due to human conflicts. Twenty-one bears had to be relocated, some by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

East of the Divide, bear specialists have been busy with black and grizzly bears but also with trying to put preventive measures like electric fencing in place. And thanks to a $70,000 Safari Club International grant, a new technician has started a carcass removal program and removed almost 500 carcasses this season.

Whereas Wenum deals mostly with hobby farms, the Rocky Mountain Front is dominated more by traditional ranches, so livestock depredation is more of a problem. Bears killed 19 cattle and 23 sheep along the Front. Choteau area bear technician Daniel McHugh said he had about 20 conflict bears although some were sows with cubs. He had to kill four conflict bears 

But more ranches are getting guard dogs as part of a Utah State University study of the effectiveness of dogs, particularly related to keeping bears away from grain bins.
In the Conrad area, bear specialist Wesley Sarmento responded to eight conflict calls related to spilled grain. He might have been more except his team removed more than 26,000 pounds of spilled grain. 

They also started using aerial drones to chase some of the 18 bears they had to away from bins, livestock and homes. Biologists can also use drones to find wounded bears, which can be a dangerous task on foot, Sarmento said.

“These drones are incredible for their effectiveness in hazing bears,” Sarmento said. “For me to drive across a field and ruin the people’s crops is a huge headache for them. So, a lot of times they don’t want you to chase the bears. And also having to go through gates and fences, it’s just really difficult to chase bears effectively with just vehicles.”

Fourteen grizzlies died east of the Divide, half of them for management reasons. 
Wildlife Services specialist Kraig Glazier said the Augusta area was the worst as far as bear conflict, although livestock depredations weren’t that high, compared to other years. 

“That was the hardest hit with drought, and I think that for producers, you couldn’t miss a dead calf because there was no grass out there. You could see everything,” Glazier said.

Glazier said a total of 20 NCDE bears were killed for chronic depredation. But this year, seven were shot instead of trapped. Glazier said it can be difficult to trap bears when calves drop due to difficulty in setting traps in the spring and specialists don’t have to handle bears. 

FWP Region 4 supervisor Gary Bertellotti approved the use of rifles.

“You guys have come up with a plan to sit out there and wait and find out what bear that is. If it’s a removal, you guys are not even trapping. You’re removing them on site,” Bertellotti said. “That has been taboo in the past. But it’s becoming more regular because of the number of bears showing up at one site. We can’t distinguish which bear actually created that, and there are so many depredations that are happening that this is actually starting to work.”

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