Bears are busy in county trying to fatten up
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks have used culvert traps to deal with hungry black bears at St. Regis School in the past. (Amy Quinlivan/Mineral Independent)
By AMY QUINLIVAN
Most Montanans will readily proclaim their love of fall. Fall brings pleasant temperatures, vibrant foliage and treasured hunting seasons.
Fall is also the time for harvesting and gathering fruits and vegetables in our backyards. Fall likewise can bring increased bear activity particularly if you have enticing treats lying around.
James Jonkel is part of the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Region 2 bear and lion management department. He’s been working with bears for over 45 years.
“In the months of September and October bears become opportunistic and take advantage of such things as apples, pears and plums. That's fine. Not much we can do about fruit, other than encourage folks to put up electric fence or pick,” explained Jonkel.
But when it comes to the other main culprits that get bears into trouble like smelly garbage cans, bird feeders, and free ranging chickens Jonkel stated, “Folks can do something, they can contain these sorts of attractants, so that when bears roam by they won't have that temptation.”
Bears are highly resourceful and won’t pass up on an easy snack this time of year. Jonkel compared, “Think of garbage or bird feeders in a front yard as money. What would you do if you walked by a house that had $10 bills hanging from a tree, a $100 bill taped to a garbage can lid, a $1,000 bill hanging from a bird feeder near the front window or a pot of gold just inside the kitchen door?”
Because of this bears get a bad rap. Jonkel however has been studying bears for decades and he understands their mindsets. A common misconception he shared, “That bears coming into your yard are aggressive, and that's why they are doing it. The truth is they want some easy food because the neighbors have trained them up and they know that your house could very well have a bird feeder and garbage as well.”
This is where the term nuisance bear gets thrown around. But Jonkel conveyed, “A nuisance bear is a bear that some nuisance human has trained up to seek out garbage, bird seed, BBQs. We have a lot of expert animal trainers out there. They are able to train a bear to come up on a porch in a matter of a few days.”
Usually it follows a series of seemingly harmless decisions. First a homeowner puts out a bird feeder on the edge of their property, or they start storing their garbage containers outdoors. Perhaps you even have fruit trees around your yard. Jonkel elaborated, “Then once the bears key into the apples they will be sure to stumble onto the bird feeder and garbage too. Before too long bears, who love fruit trees and green grass in yards, will discover the bird feeders and garbage. Then the person brings the garbage or bird feeder up on the porch. Takes a night or two, but eventually the bear will come onto the porch…. but make sure you have some dog food and a dirty BBQ on the porch first.”
The irony is not lost on Jonkel. Unfortunately, he remarked, “Usually the bear ends up dead. And as more and more people move to Montana the issues just continue to increase. Since I have been with FWP the problems have increased tenfold.”
In the fall bears enter into their yearly stage of hyperphagia, they are on the hunt for food and can eat and drink nearly nonstop. Jonkel described, “That is where they need to really "feed up" to put on some fat for the denning period. Kind of like we do here in western Montana for preparing for winter. In the fall we put up our food and prepare for the long winter (harvesting the garden, canning, hunting, bringing in the firewood, purchasing propane, etc.) So, in the fall, bears are moving far and wide looking for natural foods.”
Bears need to consume an impressive number of calories to be stored in the form of fat to help them survive winter and hibernation. This primal drive to find food is ultimately what drives hungry bears to become food conditioned in such a short amount of time.
Jonkel asked, “If you were a bear would you walk the equivalent of 100 miles to seek out a lion killed deer or road-killed elk? Or would you take an hour out of your evening to walk down a sub division loop road where there are thirty garbage cans full of kitchen waste?”
So, what can homeowners do? Confirm that they don’t have any bear attractants around their property needing to be addressed such as: bird feeders, human garbage and food, barbeques, pets and pet food, honey, compost piles, or fruit trees and gardens that need harvested.
Jonkel stated “If you don't have any attractants but a bear is hanging around, then it means you have a neighbor nearby doing everything wrong. I have seen areas where nobody has had any bear problems at all, and then one day a new person moves in and within a month you have two or three bears started up on garbage.”
Other fascinating bear dilemmas that Montanans could experience is burrowing near houses. Jonkel detailed, “We often get bears digging at the sides of houses or garages. More often than not it's for a reason. In one case a bear was peeling the siding off of a house. When I investigated, we discovered that the bears were digging out a wasp’s nest between the boards.”
“In another incident a bear was pulling the flashing off a roof and peeling boards away from the building. When I investigated, I discovered that there was 100's of pounds of dog food and bird seed stuffed in the spaces between the boards of the building. Squirrel and chipmunk caching!” recalled Jonkel.
Aside from precautions that homeowners can take, hunters too need to practice being bear aware while out in the forests. Archery season for Montana is in its final weeks even so archers need to remain cautious Jonkel noted, “Bow hunters are out there "sneaking" and going into the wildest and gamiest areas. And that's where the bears are too. They are bugling and cow talking. That is why they are more vulnerable.”
Once general hunting season starts up for deer and elk on October 24 chances for bear encounters really increase.
“Opening week of big game rifle season is always interesting. Goes from a few people here and there out the woods one day to thousands and thousands of people out the next day. Crazy time for bears and all other wildlife. Running the gauntlet, if you will. Carry bear spray all the time. It works on bears, lions, moose, elk, deer and people. Might save your life,” exclaimed Jonkel.
For those brave souls who hunt bears in our area they have until November 29 to fill their fall bear tags. The lower Clark Fork region is primarily host to black bears, but Jonkel is aware that grizzlies are starting to show up. He said, “Best known grizzlies to range through that area in recent years are "The Bitterroot Bear", "Ethyl" and "Grizzly 927."
A Google search of these collared bears will reward you with a wealth of insight.
As a hunter of these remarkable creatures himself, Jonkel gave one tip, “Bears are easy to hunt, just go to where they are finding their food.” And as a passionate student of bears he expressed, “They are smart. But they are vulnerable because they think with their stomachs.”
In just a few weeks the bears will slip away into hibernation. Jonkel said, “It's almost like clockwork. Come November 1, they start heading toward the den, with most of the bears denned up by December.” Until then remain vigilant while out hunting and recreating, and continue to limit attractants around your home.