Privately-run campgrounds are adding another complication for wildlife managers trying to reduce human conflicts with grizzly bears, experts said this week.

On Thursday, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem subcommittee met in Kalispell to review last year’s management of NCDE grizzly bears and discuss future challenges as more people with little wildlife awareness move to western Montana. Another 50 members of the committee and the public joined the meeting online.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks grizzly research biologist Cecily Costello summarized the 2021 data that showed the NCDE population is stable based upon the 2017 Conservation Strategy criteria. However, 44 bears, including 11 cubs, died within the primary conservation area and the surrounding Zone 1 buffer area – stretching from Eureka south to the Ninemile Valley, east over Rogers Pass and north through the Blackfeet Reservation.

Another 11 died in areas outside Zone 1.

Using a calculation that included the 10 known female deaths plus an estimate of other dead bears, the total NCDE female mortality in 2021 is 24, just one less than the conservation threshold.

“We’ve had a few more livestock removals than average. Also automobiles killed more than average and we had a little more than average in the poaching and malicious category,” Costello said. “In Zone 1, there’s been a significant increase in mortality as bears are beginning to expand their distribution. And it does look like, in recent years, that management removals are becoming a little higher proportion of those deaths.”

Twenty of the 33 adult bears died in Zone 1, and half of those were euthanized due to human conflict.

Much of the human conflict could be avoided, particularly related to food attractants, Costello said. Of the 272 conflict calls biologists received in 2021, more than a third were related to unnatural foods, including garbage and pet food, based on numbers from the new FWP conflict management database. Half of those calls were due to unsecured garbage, and another quarter of the calls were due to pet food.

In the category of livestock conflict, almost half of the calls were the result of unprotected chicken coops, also easily remedied with electric fencing, Costello said.

“I find this very disheartening. Bears have been listed for 47 years now, and it’s hard for me to believe that we’re this far into it and we’re still talking about garbage. We have a lot of work to do, especially in Zone 1 and these areas between the ecosystems, to make sure we have places bears can live without getting into conflict,” Costello said. “I think we can do a heck of a lot better.”

The grizzly bears are attracted to fruit orchards along the east shore of Flathead Lake. (Bill Barrett)
The grizzly bears are attracted to fruit orchards along the east shore of Flathead Lake. (Bill Barrett)

FWP Region 1 spokesman Dillon Tabish said Whitefish provided a good model of how Montana communities can be bear smart by requiring bear-proof garbage containers. A few weeks ago, the city passed an ordinance and assessed an extra $6 a month to their garbage fees to buy almost 4,000 bear-proof containers.

While it’s good to improve the situation in towns, a new problem has popped up in areas outside of towns. Kari Eneas, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes biologist, warned the committee about problems she’s having with Hipcamps, or privately-run campgrounds on private property advertised by companies similar to AirBnB or VRBO.

The CSKT have been working with the Montana Department of Transportation to install more wildlife crossing structures under Highway 93 near St. Ignatius. But as they started installing fencing to funnel wildlife toward the crossing structure at Mission Creek - a popular travel corridor for wildlife, including grizzly bears - they discovered property along the creek with an orchard on one side of the highway and the Mission Creek Hipcamp on the other.

“They were uninterested in electric fences, they were uninterested in securing their garbage. We’re trying to get through the point that this is a corridor that bears are moving through. But they weren’t receptive to helping find a solution to the problem,” Eneas said.

An estimated dozen Hipcamps dot the Mission Valley and many campers aren’t going to know that grizzly bears regularly travel through. MDOT biologist Joe Weigand said the discovery of the Hipcamp along Mission Creek was disappointing.

“It really put a wrench into finalizing those plans and getting the project out to contract. We really don’t want to put an 8-foot fence up along the campsite and then any bears that might come along, they’re forced to stay within the campsite until they get to the crossing structure,” Weigand said. “We’re accustomed to looking for subdivisions. This is something new to us.”

The committee brainstormed ideas for how to get Hipcamp hosts to follow bear-safe guidelines.

Hilary Cooley, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, said the cyclist that was killed in Ovando last year was also at a private campground and wasn’t warned about not having food in and around tents.

“How do we forcefully and consistently send that message around? So even if people aren’t interested in bear conservation, they might take the human-safety part seriously. And how to get that out to these private places?” Cooley said.

Grizzly bear research assistant Lori Roberts suggested asking the Hipcamp company to require hosts to use bear-smart practices in order to get insurance. There’s been talk about doing the same with AirBnB and VRBO, such as leaving flyers or posters in the houses.

“It’s maybe like talking to real estate agencies about letting people know they’re buying in bear country. It’s like they don’t want to let people know because it might scare people away. We’re not scaring anyone away,” Roberts said. “Let’s go straight to the source and say, ‘Guess what? You’ve got to jump through one more hoop and make it bear smart.’”

FWP Region 4 supervisor Gary Bertellotti said the issue wasn’t confined to the NCDE region.

“We’re seeing it everywhere,” Bertellotti said. “I wonder if there’s a concerted effort to address this new influx of people who don’t understand grizzly bear conservation, don’t understand grizzly bear conflict. They’re actually increasing the potential for a whole new surge in conflict related to human activity and human safety.”

Subcommittee chair Kurt Steele said he’d present the issue to the IGBC executive committee.

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