Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) As the city and county of Missoula adopt a Bear Smart resolution, members of a local working group and the City-County Health Department are looking to implement the recommendations of a hazard plan intended to manage garbage and other attractants.

The resolution, which passed on Monday night, would set the stage for further policies and practices that could take any number of forms, from requiring bear-proof containers in buffer zones around Missoula to a countywide sanitation district, where trash would be collected as part of a property's taxes.

“We've had a lot of discussion about the best way to adopt the plan. The plan is a bunch of things that just need to be implemented,” said Shannon Theriault, the county's director of environmental health. “That would begin with a resolution between the city and county to support Bear Smart efforts and give direction to implement best practices in the plan.”

The locations with frequent bear conflicts have already been identified and include most of the canyons around Missoula. But as the city grows and natural food sources grow scarce, conflicts with bears are happening more frequently across the city's urban interface, including the South Hills and other neighborhoods.


A recent hazard assessment took a deep look at where such conflicts are occurring and what's causing them. Garbage was the top problem, representing 49% of all conflicts. Bird feeders, including seed and suet, ranked second at 16%, fruit trees at 8%, pet food at 8%, and human food held in outdoor freezers at 6%.

With the hazard assessment complete, a management plan followed, detailing recommendations the city and county could take to address the problem. The Bear Smart resolution represents the first step in that direction.

“There are properties higher up in the Rattlesnake that have no restrictions on how they deal with garbage because they're outside the city limits,” said Theriault. “This plan recommends that we increase the bear buffer zone, creating a better ring around the more urban area.”

Other ideas area also on the table and the City-County Health Department would likely take the lead in many of them, including regulations around garbage and storage in the bear buffer zone.

Past efforts, such as asking people to not leave their trash out overnight on collection days, hasn't been very successful.

“There are some areas where garbage service is very early – like before 5 a.m. early,” said Theriault. “If you're going to put it out the night before, you have to have a bear-proof container. That really is the requirement. Having bear-proof garbage containers for everyone would be easier for enforcement.”

Other conversations are also taking place based on practices in other cities, including those that have garbage contracts. Such contracts could include bear-proof bins, and everyone's trash would be collected as part of their property tax.

“There are several ways to do that. One would be a solid waste district that would be the entire county,” said Theriault. “There are opportunities we haven't explored in a lot of depth.”

Areas where bear-human conflicts are highest. The hot colors have since become wider, program advocates said.
Areas where bear-human conflicts are highest. The hot colors have since become wider, program advocates said.

Like members of the City Council, county commissioners are eager to begin implementing recommendations within the hazard management plan. The resolution is a necessary first step and with conflicts growing, the time to do so is now, they said.

“This sets us up for the next step,” said commissioner Josh Slotnick.

Expecting the resolution to pass, commissioners on Monday asked members of the health department to prepare those next steps – recommendations the city and county could adopt on the heels of the resolution.

The recommendations are expected in January when the City-County Board of Health holds a hearing on proposed requirements to make Missoula a Bear Smart Community.

“This is not getting any easier,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “We're just kicking the can down the road.”

Managing garbage and other attractants will be needed to mitigate bear-human conflicts and reduce the odds that bears become habituated to human food. In those circumstances, the bears often pay with their life.

Dealing with garbage is a good place to start, they said.

“In Missoula County, all rentals have to have garbage service, but other people don't have to have service. If they're storing their garbage, they're supposed to take their garbage to the landfill every seven days. But people who don't have garbage service aren't likely doing that,” said Theriault.