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2022 Swan Valley Bear News: A Bear Food Crisis Year

by Justine Vallieres
| October 12, 2022 12:00 AM

Since the beginning of April, the southern half of the region (Kalispell, Bigfork, Creston, the Swan, and Ferndale) has had over 800 bear conflict calls. This has been one of the busiest years we have seen in a long time, but it’s not just here. All across Montana we are seeing more bear conflicts. There are a lot of factors at play here. With a combination of slow snow melt in the high country this spring (that kept bears in the valley bottom longer), a cold, wet spring, and the natural ebbs and flows of berry crops, it has resulted in a poor berry and natural food year altogether. We are calling this a “bear food crisis year.” We also have higher human densities, with a lot of encroachment into bear habitat. All of the above, coupled with stable and healthy bear populations, leads to an increase in conflicts. We often discuss the importance of securing garbage in bear-resistant containers (or within sturdy enclosures such as barns or garages), securing livestock and chickens with properly working electric fencing, removing bird feeders, keeping all livestock feed and pet food inside, and picking fruit trees and/or cutting them down if the fruit is not being utilized. However, we want to take the time to discuss some other reoccurring issues that lead to conflict.

One issue we have seen a lot of over the past couple years is outdoor freezers and refrigerators. This is a major bear attractant, as it is no different than having a cooler full of food left outside. Freezers and refrigerators need to be within the home or in an enclosure. Another issue is people waiting to call us about bear conflicts until the bear’s behavior is so bad that we have no choice but to remove it from the population. Please do not wait to call; the sooner we know of a conflict, the sooner we can respond to and deal with it, whether that’s by helping you to secure your attractants or by trapping to potentially relocate the bear.

We are also dealing with a lot of conflicts where people are leaving garbage in their bear-resistant garbage cans along the highway prior to pick-up day. These cans are called ‘bear-resistant’ for a reason, not ‘bear-proof.’ They are tested by bears at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, and if the bears do not break into them within 45 minutes, then they receive an Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee approval rating. The problem is that if a bear gnaws or works on a bear-resistant can long enough, it can sometimes break into the can, which we have seen repeatedly throughout the Upper Swan this year. We encourage people to not leave their cans along the highway with garbage in them throughout the week, to avoid bears being drawn close to the highway and having the opportunity to chew on them all night until they’re able to break in. If possible, we encourage folks to bring the garbage and cans to the highway the morning of pickup to help avoid these unnecessary conflicts.

Please also understand that we have so many calls coming in that we have to prioritize them, and we cannot and will not always trap if we do not feel it’s necessary. There are four of us here in Region 1 doing bear management, and we have 10 traps total. So, manpower and traps are limited. For example, a bear in a fruit tree will not be priority over a bear that is breaking into someone’s garage. The solution there is to pick your fruit or remove the tree altogether. It’s important to help ourselves and each other. If you’re doing all the right things to secure your garbage and attractants, but your neighbor isn’t, then they are now endangering themselves, you, and the bear. Hold each other accountable and communicate with your neighbors.

We currently have a few collared grizzly bears within the Swan Valley, one of which is an older female we call Finn, who was caught this summer getting into grain. She had no cubs with her, and she had never been caught before. She was moved down to the Spotted Bear area, but she has since made her way back. The important thing to understand about relocation is it is a band-aid solution to bear conflicts. The real solution is people securing attractants to limit and prevent bears from hanging around your properties and getting into trouble. Relocation buys us time to help landowners secure attractants, but bears never stay where you put them, and older bears almost always return to their home range or at least try to, which may result in them getting into further trouble. People often call and want the bear trapped and moved somewhere it will stay out of trouble, but they don’t understand that it is not the reality. Bears can cover a lot of ground, and if you look at a map and see the places where we can actually drive to and access to release them, you are talking about a maybe 30-40- mile (at the most) straight-line distance to the nearest homes or town.

There was a griz sow named Rummy, who was frequenting the Guest Ranch Road area with her two cubs. She was caught and collared this summer. Currently, that bear family is in the Mission Valley, west of highway 93. There has recently been a sow and three cubs in the Kraft Creek area that has broken into at least one shed to acquire grain. Attempts to capture that family have been unsuccessful. A 17-year-old female grizzly bear was hit and killed on Hwy 83 just south of Swan Lake in September. This is the only known mortality in the Swan Valley this year to date.

Please help us to help you and to help them. Please secure attractants and call as soon as you encounter an issue with a bear on your property. Thank you!