Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Missoula may soon be taking additional steps to encourage area residents to be better neighbors with bears.

On Wednesday, the City Council Public Safety, Health and Operations Committee unanimously supported a resolution to take more action toward making Missoula and the surrounding neighborhoods more bear friendly.

As a result, on Oct. 3, the Missoula city council and County Board of Commission will decide if they will commit to a Bear Smart community policy intended to encourage residents to do their part in reducing human-bear conflicts and thus keep a few more bears alive.

“We have a lot of black bears in Missoula and we’ve had grizzly bears in Missoula already, so this is important to do soon. These things don’t end well where we have more and more bears getting closer and closer to people, particularly as new developments proceed and more people, particularly people from out of the area who don’t know much about bears, are living in bear habitat,” said Chris Servheen, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Grizzly Bear coordinator and a member of the Missoula Bear Smart Working Group.

The number of human-bear conflicts increased last fall, particularly in residential areas along creeks, such as the Rattlesnake and Grant creeks. This fall, it’s only gotten worse as bears have searched for additional food sources to make up for this year’s low berry crop. Servheen said that between 30 and 40 black bears are in Missoula now, maybe more. It’s not a good situation for bear survival or public safety.

Over the winter, the Missoula Bear Smart Working Group completed a hazard assessment of the Missoula area and found neighborhood garbage was the No. 1 problem, particularly in the Rattlesnake, Grant Creek and East Missoula areas. Almost half of the bear reports to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks were due to bears getting into garbage, followed by bird feeders. That’s resulting in dead bears, because if FWP has to trap a bear, they can’t move it far enough away that it won’t get in trouble. So they have to kill it.

“Birds don’t need to be fed in the summer. If you want to see birds, they’ll come to a bird bath,” Servheen said. “People that are feeding birds are killing bears.”
After seeing the hazard assessment, the county commissioners and Mayor John Engen gave the working group the go-ahead to come up with a conflict management plan, which took four months to complete. Now that it is, it will serve as a guide for actions that the city and county might want to take to address the problem.

At this point, addressing the garbage problem would provide the most bang for the buck.

People who live in Missoula’s bear buffer zone are supposed to either get bear-resistant cans or keep their garbage inside until the morning of trash pickup, but not everyone adheres to the regulation. City environmental health director Shannon Therriault said the city is getting more serious about enforcement and is sending about 2,000 letters to homeowners in Pattee Canyon and the South Hills reminding them what they need to do to contain attractants because they live in a bear buffer zone.

This winter, she’ll also make a proposal to the city council to change the solid waste regulation and look into ways to enforce it. The working group also suggested that the bear buffer zone be enlarged to include the university area.

Other towns, like Whitefish and Durango, Colo., require that all residents have bear-proof trash cans.

It costs homeowners an extra dollar per week per household to rent bear-resistant containers from Republic Services or Grizzly Disposal. Servheen said that people might resent the added cost but it costs $50,000 a year to manage bears in Missoula alone.

Republic Services manager Chad Bauer said demand is high for the bear-resistant cans and “they’re going out as fast as we can get them in.” He added that the city of Whitefish pays for its containers by assessing a fee to all residents instead of the residents paying an additional amount as part of their personal subscriptions.

“The bear resistant containers are extremely expensive,” Bauer said. “If there could be some money to help offset that cost in the bear buffer zone, to keep the actual costs low enough for the constituents, I think there is the ability to mandate those in those areas.”

Public education needs to play a big role in the city-county effort, Servheen said. Some people just need to understand the problem and what can happen if they don’t pitch in. Then there are some who just dig in their heels if government wants them to do something.

Luckily, one professor from Oregon State University and another from Colorado State University have contacted the working group to volunteer their knowledge in dealing with “human dimensions” and to study why people resist such efforts.

“We know a lot more about bears and how to deal with bears than we do about people and human behavior. To make this happen, we’ve got to have a better knowledge of how to get people onboard,” Servheen said. “That’s where the rubber meets the road - getting people to do what we want them to do. We know what needs to be done.”

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