Black bears sneaking into urban areas throughout the Rocky Mountain West is not a new problem, but recent grizzly bear sightings in the Missoula area have local officials ramping up efforts to foster best practices for safe coexistence with community members.

Jamie Jonkel, a wildlife management specialist with Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said Monday two young bears spotted in Bonner a couple weeks ago were likely from the same North Hills family group that had raided a chicken coop in the Missoula area last year. Jonkel estimated that about 100 grizzlies live in the southern end of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem alone, with about 40 in the Clearwater and Blackfoot valley floors.

“Everyone is a wonderful animal trainer and doesn’t know it. We’ve become quite a bear training ground for behaviors we don’t like,” Jonkel said. “We’ve turned cream for bears into ice cream in the extreme richness of human-influenced habitats. Bears have to adapt and show complacency to live in the lower 48 states right now, and we’re on the frontlines of the urban wildlife phenomenon here in Missoula.”

Jonkel was part of a panel of local experts on grizzly conservation efforts and managing human-bear population conflicts that presented Monday at the first in-person Missoula City Club meeting since the outset of the pandemic. City Club is dedicated to creating forums for civil discourse and drew roughly 77 participants this week.

At the forum, panelists outlined an increasing prevalence of grizzly sightings within cities in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, the largest recovery zone for grizzlies under the Endangered Species Act in Montana encompassing Kalispell and Missoula, and urged civilians to seek education on bear prevention on their properties.

Grizzlies have been listed as a threatened species through the ESA since 1975 but have seen staggering population growth in Montana through recovery plans. As of 1975, grizzlies were reduced to 2% of their former range south of Canada due to human-driven mortality and habitat loss. Both the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the NCDE grizzly populations are above 1,000, compared to just over 100 in the two largest bear population zones in the continental U.S. in the 1970s. The panel also showed a map with dozens of instances of grizzly sightings outside of the recovery zones within the last 10 years.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved to delist grizzlies in the GYE in 2007 and 2017, both times blocked by Missoula District Court decisions, with the lack of genetic diversity for long-term population maintenance emerging as an outside issue for the delisting. The Fish, Wildlife and Parks department in Montana is currently drafting a proposal to augment genetic diversity by cross-zone grizzly breeding, but it has set no public timeline for the proposal’s completion.

USFWS grizzly bear recovery coordinator Hilary Cooley said her office is already processing delisting petitions filed this year from Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Removal from the ESA would mean grizzlies could be legally hunted in these areas, which a University of Montana 2020 survey reported support for, with 61% of people agreeing individuals should be able to hunt grizzlies as long as populations “can withstand the pressure.”

Wayne Slaght, the manager of the Two Creek Monture Ranch in Ovando, estimated he has 10 grizzlies regularly on his ranch for nine months of the year and sees bears on cameras within 50 feet of his house five days a week. After multiple cattle deaths and wooden sheds destroyed by bears, he’s spent thousands on electric fencing and steel containers, among other prevention techniques.

“We have too many bears. It’s something we live with 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s a costly headache,” Slaght said. “It’s better, though, to have us out there than condos out in the woods. As land managers we’re taking care of the land and giving them good habitats, we just need to learn how to deal with them.”

Cooley said the USFWS is hiring five new people to address bear conflicts in the region, but civilians in urban areas recently frequented by grizzlies are looking for new local solutions and education opportunities. The uptick in bear sightings within the city has prompted local activists like Jonkel to advocate for Missoula to become Bear Smart, a designation for community human-bear conflict management and education Virginia City and Whitefish are also working towards. 

Jonkel started the Missoula Bear Smart Working Group with other local advocates this year to begin this process, and the group is conducting a hazard assessment to identify next steps for a human-bear conflict management plan. A GoFundMe for Bear Smart-related projects by Blake Nicolazzo has raised over $5,000, and the working group plans to present their assessment findings to city officials this summer.