Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Bears have had a tough year finding food, based on their behavior, so people need to be especially vigilant about removing attractants such as garbage or windfallen fruit.

On Thursday, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear biologists appealed to the public once again to get rid of anything around their homes that could attract bears, because bears are acting noticeably different this fall. Region 2 biologist Jamie Jonkel said he noticed that bears came down into the lower elevations earlier this year, looking for apples by the end of August instead of October.

“It appears we’ve had a food failure regionally, perhaps elsewhere as well. Here in the Missoula Region 2 area, we definitely have some unusual things occurring,” Jonkel said. “We’re seeing behaviors that we don’t normally see unless there’s a food crisis period.”

During the fall, bears enter a period of “hyperphagia,” experiencing an incessant need to eat because they’re trying to consume enough calories to get them through their winter hibernation. In a good year, bears eat all kinds of food to pack on the pounds. But if a significant food source is diminished, as it appears to have been this year, their urgency to find enough food before winter increases.

Jonkel said that urgency produces a behavior shift in bears. They become so focused on getting food that they stop paying attention to other things around them, such as people yelling at them. It’s a tool they can use to cope with humans when times are bad, Jonkel said.

“I’ve got bears that have shifted into this extreme complacency mode where they’re ignoring people altogether so they can continue to graze on green grass in a front yard, ignoring people so they can eat the last 10 apples. It’s been tough here the last 10 days. We’ve had to trap a lot of bears, put down a few bears. It’s a lot of conflict,” Jonkel said.

Bear biologists across western Montana have been busier than normal fielding calls from people reporting bears getting into everything from beehives and apple trees to garbage cans and outdoor freezers. Region 1 biologist Justine Vallieres said she was seeing the same thing north of Kalispell.

“We’re getting more and more calls of people saying that the bears are coming in and (the bears) just don’t care,” Vallieres said. “It’s been a crazy year. We’ve had more bears in town. I’ve had over 550 calls since April 1 and I cover the northern part of the region. Eric Wenum covers the southern part, and he’s been crazy the last two weeks because he’s got more of the fruit trees in the valley.”

The biologists aren’t sure what caused the food crisis. Vallieres suspects a shortage of huckleberries might have played a part. The berries were good in some areas and completely missing in others. Jonkle said he doesn’t know yet what might have caused it.

“I think a combination of environmental factors have limited our food supply across the board here on the south end. There’s no one bountiful food supply that’ll get them through this fall,” Jonkel said. “Instead, sadly, the bountiful food supply is the apples and plums in Missoula. So we’re seeing some pretty crazy stuff as a result. Perhaps I’ll figure it out by fall.”

The upshot is that bears are very hungry and their search for food is leading them into danger when it comes to humans. People can help by putting away attractants that can lure bears in.

That means people shouldn’t leave their household garbage outside and shouldn’t leave pet food or birdseed out. Clean barbeque grills and put them away. Install electric fencing around beehives, chicken coops and fruit trees and pick fruit up as early as possible. In Missoula, the Great Bear Foundation will help homeowners glean apples for free.

Last week, the City of Columbia Falls passed a resolution requiring people to cull their fruit and store their garbage until pickup day.

Getting into hunting season, hunters should always be on the lookout for bears, especially in brushy areas, and try not to field-dress their game after dark.

Jonkel said he doesn’t want bears to learn they can get food rewards just because people leave food out. But just because bears learn habits during one crisis year doesn’t mean they’ll continue to get into trouble. So he urged people to be understanding.

“In years past, I’ve seen bears do this, and then the following year when there’s good bear food, you don’t see that same behavior,” Jonkel said. “It’s kind of like sometimes we have to go to the food bank one year when we’re low on money – other years, we do okay.

“We’re asking people to be patient as well as containing their attractants. In these crisis years, bears behave differently, and folks just have to realize that and be patient. It will be better next year, hopefully.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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