Montana bear managers were waiting for April 1 to start warning people about securing their garbage and birdfeeders, but the bears beat them to the buzzer.
A big black bear has already broken into two garages in Missoula's Rattlesnake neighborhood, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear manager Jamie Jonkel. A snowmobiler in the Ovando area spotted fresh griz tracks last Friday. And wildlife officers on the Flathead Indian Reservation saw a sow grizzly with a cub over the weekend.
"This big male that's breaking into garages, I'm pretty sure, is the same one that was up there last fall," Jonkel said of the Rattlesnake black bear. "We caught a lot of different bears last fall, hoping it was him, but we never got him. This time, he went straight to the little side door where he knew where the freezer was, popped it and got it."
The news comes just as Missoula city government was preparing to remind residents about bear buffer zones in certain neighborhoods that carry fines for sloppy garbage handling. The Rattlesnake, Grant Creek, the base of Mount Sentinel, Lower Miller Creek and other riparian areas are all in the buffer zone.
Fines for violating the bear-feeding ordinance are a minimum $25 and can be as high as $500. Deferred for 2010, the fines now are in effect, according to Missoula city spokeswoman Ginny Merriam.
Many bear-zone residents got some confusing news last winter when Allied Waste changed some of its garbage routes. In postcards sent to the customers, Allied asked that garbage be placed on the streets the night before scheduled pickups. However, that violates the bear-feeding law.
"We know it's difficult for people who live in the bear zones," Merriam said, "but if you're in the bear zone, you need to obey the ordinance. You need to get your garbage cart out by 6 a.m., but not the night before."
Region 1 FWP biologists are also getting reports of bear activity. Grizzly bear specialist Tim Manley said the snowpack in many parts of northwest Montana was 20 percent above average. A late melt tends to force bears into lower, more human-populated valleys in search of spring food.
"On the east side of the Flathead Valley during 2010," Manley said, "we had 18 grizzly bears we knew spent much of April and the first half of May in the valley. Most of those bears did not cause any conflicts, but we had to capture and relocate five of them. The deep spring snows put them somewhere they usually wouldn't spend a lot of time and the potential for conflict with people was high."
Around Missoula, Region 2 wildlife manager Mike Thompson said many bears are already conditioned to look for people-food first.
"They'll be looking for the easiest possible food sources they can come on to," Thompson said. "So we want people to be especially vigilant and keep them from taking up residence in somebody's backyard."
Chicken coops and feed, winter-killed livestock and other carrion will often attract bears. In Bozeman, FWP bear manager Kevin Frey warned people hunting elk antler sheds to be wary of running into foraging bears.
Information about bear sightings, garbage protection and community involvement can be found on the Internet at www.missoulabears.org. The main FWP website also has resources for dealing with bears under the "Be Bear Aware" button at www.fwp.mt.gov.