Northern grizzly management complicated by COVID, inexperienced campers

Many bear deaths result from the failure to secure attractants: bears in yards, in garbage cans, around bird feeders or fruit trees, or chasing small livestock, normally chickens. (USDA Forest Service)

The worldwide pandemic has brought Montana’s grizzly bear managers a new challenge to deal with: a surge of new residents and backcountry neophytes.

On Monday, biologists and land managers of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee discussed what a chaotic summer it had been because of visitors flooding into Montana and how a repeat next summer could be as dangerous for grizzly bears as it was annoying for longtime residents.

“At Glacier National Park, there was a huge COVID effect,” said Glacier Park superintendent Jeff Mow. “Not only is it a large number of visitors who’d never been on public lands before and therefore didn’t know how to behave with some very basic skills like taking care of garbage, burying human waste, dogs, all those public use issues.”

GNP bear specialist John Waller said the park hadn’t had any harmful conflicts with bears although the park had to repeatedly close Logan Pass and the Hidden Lake Overlook due to a grizzly intent on hunting mountain goats. Also, a woman running on the Huckleberry Lookout Trail had stumbled into a grizzly, but fortunately, they ran in opposite directions after their brief tumble.

“We try and discourage (trail running) and that’s a perfect example why,” Waller said. “It’s a pretty dangerous thing to do when you have a high-density grizzly bear population.”

The park had a lot of trouble with bears getting into dumpsters because tourists don’t close the lids or don’t secure them properly, Waller said. That’s a problem for the bears because they’ll become habituated, become aggressive and eventually have to be killed.

Things were a little quieter on the park’s east side because the Blackfeet Nation closed their reservation to nonresidents. Blackfeet biologist Buzz Cobell said the tribal wildlife department took a hit, however, because fewer tourists also meant fewer anglers buying reservation fishing licenses.

But biologists still had to respond to a lot of calls from ranchers who had about 44 bear depredations, mostly pigs and calves. Plus, five grizzlies were found dead, and because most were shot, their deaths are under investigation.

While the reservation highways were quiet this year, Cobell is worried about next year, now that improvements are being made to Highway 89 along the east side of the park.

“The road is upgraded, so speeds will increase,” Cobell said. “I think there’s going to be more mortality.”

As far as total grizzly mortality in the NCDE, 33 bears are known to have died this year within the main monitoring area, including 12 cubs. Two males also died outside the monitoring area, said FWP bear biologists Cecily Costello.

Subtracting cubs and adding bears whose deaths are unknown, the NCDE lost an estimated total of 28 bears. That’s down from the peak number of deaths in 2018.

Hilary Cooley, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear coordinator, said most bear deaths fall into three main categories: automobile strikes; site-related, such as around chicken coops or dumpsters; and shooting-related, which includes poaching and shooting by hunters or landowners.

The shooting-related deaths happen everywhere so the entire IGBC should probably take that on, Cooley said. But the NCDE committee probably could tackle the specific aspects of the other two categories, such as coming up with road signs and improving roadkill pickup programs to reduce automobile-strikes on Highways 93, 2 south of Glacier Park, and now 89 east of Glacier Park.

Kalispell FWP bear biologist Tim Manley had to deal with some site-related losses of bears this year as part of more than 200 conflict calls he had to answer. He had to euthanize three bears and then another three after attempting to relocate them. Every year, it usually results from people not securing attractants: bears in yards, in garbage cans, around bird feeders or fruit trees, or chasing small livestock, normally chickens.

“We’ve had a lot of chickens killed in the valley this year,” Manley said. “Unfortunately, we’re always after the eight-ball. We get the call and we go in and try to prevent further problems. But it’s getting hard to get people to do preventative stuff to keep chickens from getting killed in the first place.”

It gets even worse when people just leave food scattered around, as many campers did this summer. Flathead National Forest representative Amy Jacobs said managers saw the number of dispersed campsites double in the Flathead.

Manley said the areas around Hungry Horse Reservoir, Tally Lake and Swan Lake were a mess with overflowing dumpsters, and people camping everywhere and not cleaning up after themselves. Collared bears were tracked going into those areas and loitering around the dumpsters. Manley worried about their futures.

Down on the southern end of the NCDE, FWP bear biologist Jamie Jonkel was seeing the same thing.

“A lot of folks in trailer houses, tent camps, camped out back in the toolies – along every kind of pullout along a creek, there was a camper trailer,” Jonkel said. “We visited with a lot of folks, had a few conflicts related to some of that.”

Over on the Flathead Reservation, Stacy Courville, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes bear biologist, said he’s had to educate a lot of people who have moved to Montana without knowing much about it. One couple wanted him to do something about the bear in their orchard.

“They didn’t realize they were in grizzly country. I think that’s happening all over,” Courville said.

Jonkel said he’s run into the same situation, especially in the Seeley area.

“I’ve been fielding a lot of calls from folks that have just purchased property or houses here that are pretty novice about bears,” Jonkel said.

So that will just add to the challenges Jonkel has in the Seeley and Clearwater areas, which includes problems with bears getting into unsecured garbage, particularly in campgrounds but also around town.

“We’re going to be pretty aggressive in the Seeley area next year,” Jonkel said. “We’re going to launch an effort that will hopefully help the town get cleaned up. We’ll see how that goes.”

Mow said COVID-19 had brought tourists and trouble, but it might not change by next summer. So some tourist education is needed if bear conflicts are to decrease in 2021.

“Reducing bear conflicts would be a huge focus for us,” Mow said. “’Recreate responsibly’ is a messaging platform we’re hoping to tee up and see how grizzly bears and all that works into that idea of what you would almost call ‘Leave No Trace 2.0.’ Or maybe it’s a ‘0.5,’ because it has to go back to some very basic points of ‘Leave No Trace.’”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.