Missoula and Whitefish need to do more to reduce attractants that put grizzly bears and people in danger. A new program might help them and other unprepared communities, including those in the North Cascade region, help themselves.
Lori Roberts, Fish, Wildlife & Parks education bureau chief, told the executive committee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee that the recent uptick in calls about grizzly bear incidents in more suburban areas around Missoula, Kalispell and Whitefish demonstrated the need for a focused Bear Smart Community program.
“A lot of people are looking for some avenue for communities to help themselves as bears continue to move in their distribution and population sizes,” Roberts said. “So the working group is moving forward – we see the benefit of having it.”
A few people have already gotten smaller efforts going in their communities. Kim Johnston, People and Carnivores project manager, has been developing a program in Virginia City even though they don’t have grizzly bears yet. She was the one who reached out to Roberts on the need to develop something more far-reaching. A working group was born.
There are a number of programs created to encourage communities to follow best practices, such as Water-Wise, Fire-Wise or Tree City designations. Some places even have Bear-Wise designations. However, the drawback of some of these is they provide only suggestions to follow or a few goals to achieve to get a designation without any follow-up.
Roberts pointed to Missoula’s Bear Aware ordinance that requires homeowners in a donut of areas on the outskirts of the city to use bear-proof garbage containers.
“But that’s all you can find. I don’t know what they’re doing to continue that,” Roberts said.
A week ago, FWP bear biologist Jamie Jonkel said Missoula needs to do a lot more to deal with all the black bear issues around town and now a grizzly mother with cubs in the North Hills.
Whitefish has gone a step further and requires all residents to have bear-proof cans, but that takes more money, Roberts said.
So, rather than the somewhat scattershot community approach that’s emerging, the IGBC working group created a six-criteria process that all communities could follow to earn “Bear Smart” certification.
Since it’s intended to be a bottom-up effort, a community would form a committee that includes a wildlife consultant and representatives of local waste management. They’d assess their town for problem areas and attractants and then develop a plan to address those. They’d also need to develop a garbage management plan and develop an education program to inform residents, school children and visiting recreationalists about bear safety.
The completion of these five steps would earn a Bear Smart certification. But the working group also suggested a Silver certification for those communities that take the sixth step to develop incentives, create ordinances or bylaws and, most important, enforce them.
“This is kind of the hardest one,” Roberts said. “This has been a challenge in Missoula and Whitefish. I’m sure it’s been a challenge in other areas.”
Roberts said the Jackson Hole area would be the guinea pig for a pilot project with the help of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. Jackson Hole has been a recent poster child for bear conflict, because the famous grizzly 399 and her four cubs have taken to leaving Grand Teton National Park and traveling down to Jackson Hole, where they’ve gotten food rewards.
As a result, Teton County planning commission is reconsidering an ordinance to require bear-proof cans and limits on other attractants such as birdseed.
On Wednesday, the IGBC executive committee debated whether the Bear Smart plans should apply to the city or county level. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Hilary Cooley said a county-level plan could be problematic because some communities might feel under-represented.
“I think it has to be flexible. If you do it countywide, it does add a lot of layers,” Roberts said.
However, while a city like Missoula can manage its own program, smaller unincorporated towns run into problems because they don’t have their own law enforcement or city government. And often, as is the case with Jackson Hole, bear incidents occur outside the city limits.
Kristin Combs of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates said the Jackson Hole plan would probably have to happen at the county level, although the community assessment of bear conflict areas could show what was needed where.
“It would be easier to start in just Jackson, because it’s smaller and we have a city ordinance that could actually have tickets issued for it. But most of the conflicts we’re having are occurring in the areas that are in the outlying areas of the county,” Combs said.
Roberts said there’s no timeline for when the Bear Smart program would move beyond the pilot project stage. But once it does, it’s going to need a leader and some funding or things tend to fall apart.
“In order for a program to be successful, you have to have someone to run the program. You have to have someone constantly making sure that communities are implementing their programs, they’re moving forward with their timelines, they’re turning in their reports, things like that,” Roberts said.
If the program gets on its feet, the state of Washington might have some need of it.
The North Cascade Ecosystem in north-central Washington still has no known grizzlies, and efforts to start reintroduction were halted last year.
The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with the Forest Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, had been working since 2014 on developing an environmental impact statement on grizzly restoration. But in July 2020, former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt ordered his people to go no further.
But yesterday, the North Cascade Committee Zoom call was somewhat inundated by members of the public asking Don Striker, the newly assigned superintendent for North Cascades National Park Service Complex, to resume work on the EIS, said Kristin Bail, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest supervisor.
A 2016 poll indicated that 80% of Washington voters favored grizzly bear reintroduction. The North Cascades National Park makes up a large portion of the grizzly bear recovery zone.
“There were a number of folks that showed up to advocate and encourage that the Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Park Service reinitiate the EIS for the reintroduction of the grizzly into our zone. That was not expected,” Bail said. “It just goes to show that that’s a very live question.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.