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Coexisting with ease; keeping the garden bear-free

by By Chris Moore, Bear Aware Bigfork
| June 26, 2024 12:00 AM

My wife and I are big gardeners. When we purchased our property in Bigfork some thirteen years ago, one of the first things we did was identify a site suitable for a large garden, complete with vegetable and flower beds, fruit trees, and composting bins. We live on a heavily wooded property but there was an open area at the rear of our parcel which we deemed perfect. We knew that the site needed to be fenced to keep the deer out but bears were not on our radar when we began planning and laying out the garden space. It was a number of years before we were able to break ground but we put that time to good use. 

Like so many new Montana residents moving here from elsewhere, we were naïvely unaware of the strong bear attraction to both compost and fruit trees. Luckily, through the advice of neighbors and Swan Valley Bear Resources (SVBR), we learned of the importance of electrifying our planned fence to keep the bears at bay. We proactively worked with SVBR to design and install the electric component of our fencing in advance of planting and composting. Through Defenders of Wildlife, we were able to recoup 50% of our investment, making the project quite affordable.  

That was six years ago and we have had no problems with bears, despite the fact that they routinely frequent our property and the neighborhood at large. Living in harmony with the bears is made easier with the plethora of resources available to homeowners now, many more than when we first moved here. SVBR is foremost amongst them. You can learn more about the collaborative working group and the resources available to all community members on their informative webpage at (www.swanvalleyconnections.org/swan-valley-bear-resources). SVBR will happily do property consultations as well to advise landowners how best to coexist with bears. We worked with SVBR and a number of other local volunteers to create a volunteer group called “Bear Aware Bigfork” (BAB). BAB has been promoting the work of SVBR since 2021, working to foster bear awareness and coexistence in the Bigfork/Ferndale communities.  

What can you do to help further the cause? First and foremost, take advantage of the many resources available to educate yourself and better understand how to live in harmony with our local bear population. Secondly, talk to your friends and neighbors about how they too can help. Fruit trees and compost are high on the list of bear attractants but they are by no means the only ones. Backyard chickens, beehives, unsecured or improperly stored garbage, barbecues, animal feed, bird feeders and the like all have the potential to create human-bear conflict. We planted our garden on the first of June and have had our electric-fence activated ever since.  

Swan Valley Bear Resources (SVBR) is a collaborative group that promotes coexistence between humans and bears, who provide resources to anyone in the Bigfork and Ferndale communities. SVBR loans out bear-resistant garbage containers for free indefinitely and offers a cost-share program for electric fencing around attractants such as small livestock and orchards. SVBR provides free property consultations and will design a fence to suit the needs of the landowner and maintain proper specifications to deter grizzly bears. Swan Valley Connections’ trained staff will install the electric fence, free of charge. Call Swan Valley Connections at (406) 754-3137 to learn more about how you can obtain resources made available to you by Swan Valley Bear Resources. To report bear sightings or conflicts, contact Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Bear and Lion Specialist, Erik Wenum, at (406) 250-0062.