Tuesday, June 25, 2024

“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”: Swan Valley Bear Resources is Charged for Coexistence

by Rob Rich
| June 15, 2022 12:00 AM

Jan Moore will never forget waking to the sound of a grizzly cub wailing with its mother thundering inside a culvert-shaped trap. It was the furious attraction of family denied freedom by inches of metal. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Grizzly Bear Specialist Tim Manley was trying to relocate the whole family together, and as the panicked calls reported the pre-dawn rage, he could only sigh and get dressed for another day on the job. It was but the latest reminder of the obvious fact: “easy” and “bear management” do not belong in the same sentence. Especially bear management after the problem, which for these bears was a humble chest freezer stashed outside a house. Though the freezer’s walls and contents were hard, bears can smell through and open a latchless door, and an elk steak popsicle is apparently quite a treat.

Jan and her husband Chris had previously attended Swan Valley Connections’ annual Spring Bear Wake-Up Social near their Ferndale home, and they knew that such attractants – freezers, livestock, birdfeeders, bees, fruit trees, and more – were enough to lure bears from miles away. A chance taste might not be of consequence were it not such an addictive habit, one that individual bears learn, pass on to others, and come to expect.

That’s why US Forest Service (USFS) Wildlife Biologist Mark Ruby and Swan Valley Connections (SVC) decided this vicious cycle – which so often led to dead bears and scared people – had to end. In 2008, they allied in a partnership called Swan Valley Bear Resources (SVBR), which quickly became a local beacon for the bear aware movement that’s sweeping the West. Over a decade later, SVBR continues to meet real needs with real expertise including outreach for the public, technical assistance for private landowners, and conflict monitoring for agency wildlife managers.

For the non-trash attractants that can’t be mashed in a container – say, vegetables, fruit trees or compost – SVBR has another solution: the electric bear fence. Thanks to cost-share support from partners like Defenders of Wildlife and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, SVBR can economically reach private landowners with the consultation, design, and installation services to produce durable solutions that work. Robert Frost was being wry when he quipped “good fences make good neighbors,” but this kind of fence really does find success, and more as an instructor than an impervious wall. Bears learn best when they teach themselves, and an electric fence epitomizes the “passive aversive conditioning” that results in well-educated bruins.

As the Moores got to thinking about their neighbor’s freezer raid, they decided to install an electric fence as a preventative, nonlethal tool. The building process is deceptively simple, and a quality product demands common sense, strength, and finesse in the right place at the right time. The materials are few and basic – wire, insulated wire, plastic insulators, a grounding rod, energizer, and power source – but when strung taut and linked they become an effective circuit of power. Since bears know the world best through their nose, SVBR typically designs fences with three to five wires; the lowest rung gets the sniffer, the uppers thwart climbers. It takes a whopping 8,000 to 10,000 volts to deter a grizzly – not enough to cause harm, but just the right jolt for dismissal from school.

Currently, SVBR has built a total of 36 electric fences throughout the greater Swan Valley. Please be in touch when you’re ready to help this number grow and take advantage of all that SVBR can offer. SVBR’s fences and resources are here for good neighbors like you, and of course, the bears.

To learn more about Swan Valley Bear Resources, and how you can work to maintain a healthy relationship with your wild neighbors, please visit www.swanvalleyconnections.org/swan-valley-bear-resources or give us a call at 406-754-3137


Electric bear fences are custom-built and adaptable to the particular needs of each site. These fences are also extremely cost-effective investments that secure landowner attractants with practical methods, spare money required for expensive post-problem management, and save bears from needlessly losing their lives. (photo provided)