Local bears faced with a weak berry crop have been especially aggressive in Missoula this fall, snacking in gardens, sifting through garbage cans and, at times, even attempting to enter homes in search of food. To help curb this dangerous behavior, Missoula City Councilwoman Pam Walzer last week proposed legalizing electric fences capable of keeping bears away from residential properties within city limits.
"I'm waiting to find out who's got a problem with it," Walzer says. "Is there a safe way to do this? Do we want to do it?"
Several experts believe it's a good idea, including Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) bear expert Jamie Jonkel. When bears become comfortable entering populated areas and start, for instance, munching on apples growing in backyard trees, it poses a threat to the community. Wildlife officials then must intervene, either relocating or euthanizing the animal.
FWP has so far removed 14 habituated bears from the Rattlesnake this season, and put down three more.
With that in mind, electric fencing teaches bears a potentially lifesaving lesson: steer clear of people.
"Electric fencing, if it's set up correctly, is a very efficient tool," Jonkel says. "Pretty soon they're like, 'I'm not going to do that again.'"
A 6,000-volt electric jolt—the minimum charge required to deter a bear—is clearly painful, but experts say the surge isn't capable of injuring bears, pets or people.
"Pets would do it once and then never do it again," says Erin Edge of the nonprofit conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, which supports legalizing electric fencing in the city. "As far as hurting wildlife, it's a one-time shot. They won't come back."
Walzer's move marks the second step taken by council this year to reduce human-bear interaction. City Council in February passed a bear buffer garbage ordinance, setting strict requirements on how refuse is moved and stored in certain areas of the city in order to limit attractants and discourage bears from moving farther into town.