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Bearing down

In poor food year, biologists grapple with "bear-mageddon"

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On a recent Friday morning, Jamie Jonkel sat in a Reserve Street bakery taking a brief reprieve from his duties with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He hadn't even tasted his bear claw before his cellphone chimed. The voice on the other end belonged to an older gentleman from up the Rattlesnake who witnessed a lone black bear cub wandering near his apple trees. Jonkel jotted down a few notes before offering the man an abridged version of the latest bear news around town.

And there is plenty of bear news. The longtime FWP bear specialist estimates more than 80-plus black bears are foraging for food in the greater Missoula area. Poor food conditions at higher elevations drove the bruins into the valleys earlier and in greater numbers than usual, a scenario Jonkel says tends to play out roughly every 10 years. He likens it to Missoula throwing a huge food fair and attracting people from other communities dozens of miles away.

"We're calling it bear-mageddon," Jonkel says.

The resulting bear hijinks might elicit a chuckle at first, even from Jonkel. He and others in Region 2 have already had to deal with bears getting stuck in garages, opening car doors and hanging out in treetops mere blocks away from Sentinel High School.

"We had to trap one bear in a fairly rural area," Jonkel says. "He had set up shop at a lone house with lots of apple trees, but the roost tree that he had chosen to stay in every day was about 4 feet from a bedroom window."

The chuckles subside, however, at the first mention of longterm ramifications. Bear-mageddon won't simply end with the onset of winter. Come next fall, these bears will remember the feast they enjoyed on the fringes of Missoula, Jonkel says, and he believes that learned behavior could prompt them to return three or four years down the road.

"Even if we have a really wonderful, wet year with lots of huckleberries, they're probably going to be thinking about apples and pears and plums and that garbage can filled with moldy potato salad and spare ribs," he says. "A bad food year like this is going to make it pretty tough for everyone."

A female black bear—with three cubs in tow—seeks shelter in a tree up the Rattlesnake earlier this month. State biologist Jamie Jonkel estimates 80 or more black bears have descended on the Missoula area this fall in search of food. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB WIESNER
  • photo courtesy of Bob Wiesner
  • A female black bear—with three cubs in tow—seeks shelter in a tree up the Rattlesnake earlier this month. State biologist Jamie Jonkel estimates 80 or more black bears have descended on the Missoula area this fall in search of food.

Some Missoula neighborhoods have become quite adept at discouraging such behavior, particularly those with "bear aware" networks headed by volunteer residents. One such volunteer, Bert Lindler in the Prospect Meadows area of Grant Creek, keeps a watchful eye on black bear activity each fall. Up until a few weeks ago, Lindler found that bears were keeping to the wilder portions along Grant Creek where they could forage on hawthorn bushes. But as the hawthorns dwindled, a large, brownish black bear began seeking out apples in residential yards and has become increasingly active during the day.

"If the bears hide during the day and they come out and feed on natural foods at night ... that's perfectly natural behavior and perfectly appropriate behavior," Lindler says. "As the weeks have passed, unfortunately, this bear is being seen during the daytime, and that really doesn't work so good because the bear also then is far more willing to be seen very close to the homes."

His biggest fear is that the bear will eventually start rummaging through garbage cans, so Lindler's set up a sandwich board at the head of Prospect Drive reminding his neighbors not to take their trash out to the curb until the morning of collection day. Grant Creek falls within Missoula's bear "buffer zone," an area established by city ordinance in 2009 that allows animal control to fine residents for leaving garbage out overnight. Lindler believes the ordinance hasn't been enforced enough to discourage that behavior.

Jonkel cites similar concerns in the South Hills. There are currently 15 or more black bears "working" the area between Pattee and Miller creeks, he says, and garbage cans are being regularly left out all week. He attributes the issue partly to the lack of a bear aware network in that neighborhood, adding that one will likely be established soon if the bears begin targeting those cans.

Jonkel remains optimistic that Missoula residents will turn to resources like missoulabears.org to help alleviate the situation and reduce the likelihood of black bears picking up bad habits. But even if they do, October is usually the roughest month for bear conflicts, and while there hasn't been a violent conflict in the valley yet, Jonkel is nervous about the weeks ahead.

"If we got some good moisture, it would sure help," he says. "But the bears came down a month early to get to the food that they needed to put them in the den. That food is now pretty much gone. Even the apples and the plums are withering ... So these bears I think are going to get really, really, really desperate."

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