A wildlife expert said black bear sightings in western Montana "blew up" Monday and Tuesday as early ripening apples lured them to populated areas.
“Bears are just pouring down from the high elevations,” Jamie Jonkel, bear management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said Tuesday. “We have bears in every direction, from Missoula to the lower Clark Fork, to the Bitterroot, Lincoln, Helmville. ... So it’s started.”
In the Missoula area alone, FWP estimates there are 20 to 25 bears eating domestic fruit, eight to 10 of them in the Rattlesnake Valley.
“If you have a fruit tree, it is likely a bear will find it,” Jonkel's office posted on missoulabears.org. “Please pick fruit as soon as possible. Electric fence is also a useful tool to protect your fruit trees.”
Black bear reports have been steady for a week, according to alerts posted on the website. There’ve been no serious run-ins with humans, and the website lists only one livestock depredation by a bear.
That’s one too many for Bonnie Ford Elliott, who lives three miles up Butler Creek, north of Missoula International Airport.
Elliott’s 16-year-old llama, Perky, is one of the few of her species who has discovered that llamas can jump, Elliott said. On the nights of Aug. 12 and Aug. 15 Perky cleared the perimeter pasture fence and vanished into the hills for what at the time were unknown reasons.
The llama is still on the lam, and the reason became known last Thursday at sunup. Elliott ventured out to investigate a black mass of something under a hawthorn tree 100 feet from her back porch.
She discovered the gruesome remains of her other llama, 20-year-old Rajah, whose head was almost gone. Returning to her house, Elliott called 9-1-1 to report it. Even as she was on the phone, she watched a 220-pound male black bear emerge from the bushes nearby and start eating on the body.
“Unbeknownst to me, that bear was about 30 feet from where I’d been,” Elliott said.
The bear was trapped later the same day by FWP officials. It was put down the following day at FWP headquarters. Normally the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services deals with livestock depredations, Jonkel said, but the federal agency was so swamped with lion and bear calls it asked for help.
Elliott, a seasoned hunter whose late husband Jim Ford was regional director of Montana FWP, said she’s been living in the same home on Butler Creek since 1974. At one time she raised 40 llamas to breed and sell, with any number of black bears coming through. Only once before has one of the latter eaten one of the former.
That was in early August 1998.
“The bear was starving. It was a really freak thing, but that bear had a reason,” Elliott said.
This one, she said, was in good shape. She has no apple trees, no birdfeeders, no chickens and no garbage cans to lure his affections. But hawthorn trees droop their berries over Elliott’s fence and pond from the stream side, as they do all up and down Butler Creek. Jonkel said hawthorns are a bear’s most dependable food source in the Missoula area.
“If you’re living in an area that’s pretty wild like Butler Creek, you’ve got a lot of bears and mountain lions. Sometimes that opportunity is just going to present itself to a bear – a certain tail twitch, a certain time of year,” Jonkel said. “Bears are not very good hunters, but if you’re putting your lips around hawthorn berries and suddenly off to your left a llama stumbles into range ...”
Perky wasn’t around to make that stumble.
She came home three days after her first escape, as Elliott expected she would, but fled again the same night.
A few days later, the llama tried to come back again.
“Some of the neighbor’s dogs startled her,” Elliott said. “She ran down the road and got into another neighbor’s yard, and their dog actually chased her. So now she’s retraumatized again.”
The bear attacked and killed Rajah that night or early the next morning.
On Monday, after five days, Perky made her way from high on the east side of Butler Creek on forested lands to the west side.
She lay on a smoky, mostly bare slope Tuesday afternoon in the shade of a neighbor’s tree, a mile up the creek from Elliott’s home and nearly within sight of it.
As Elliott approached and reached out a hand, Perky rose to her feet and sauntered away. It was a scene repeated several times over the past week.
“If I can’t catch her, nobody can,” Elliott said with a sigh. “She’ll just have to come back on her own. That’s why I want people to know to leave her alone and let her do it when she decides to.”
She's asked the neighbors she knows to keep their dogs restrained for a couple of days to avoid a repeat of Perky's traumatization.
Llamas being social animals, Elliott has already determined to replace Perky’s lost longtime friend with another from a refuge in Corvallis.
The “weird year” continues here, Jonkel said, as not only apples and hawthorn berries but all the fruits and berries that grow in western Montana are early.
“We’re getting calls right and left of bears in the apples, bears in plum trees, bears in pear trees,” Jonkel said.
He suggested people who can’t pick their own fruit contact Garden City Harvest or the Great Bear Foundation, both headquartered in Missoula, for help. They’re part of a pilot project called the Missoula Valley Fruit Exchange, described on missoulabears.org as “a method for people who have too much fruit to connect with people that would like fruit.”
The website also has information on how to manage attractants and urges bikers, joggers and hikers to carry bear spray. It espouses the value of electric fences around orchards and bee yards and reminds those in Missoula’s Bear Buffer Zone that it's against the law to leave garbage out.
Runners reported seeing six bears on a five-mile trail at Montana Snowbowl on a recent morning. Bears have been reported to FWP in domestic fruit trees in and around Big Flat, Hayes Creek and Blue Mountain, Miller Creek, the Skalkaho area, Clinton and Rock Creek.
A female black bear with three cubs has been seen eating apples in the West Riverside-East Missoula area. Near Johnsrud Park in the Blackfoot, a black bear got into chicken feed and was seen near chickens. Chickens and their feed are irresistible to bears. Jonkel said the prevalence of chickens around Missoula over the past 10 years is remarkable.
At least two black bears were killed on roadways last week, one on a back road between Drummond and Helmville (it was probably feeding on chokecherries) and another east of Ovando on Montana Highway 200.
About the same time Elliott lost her llama last week, one mountain lion killed a sheep in Corvallis and another killed a goat near Superior.
“Everyone is doing a great job with garbage and all that kind of stuff, and the (garbage) ordinance has been so successful in the Missoula area,” Jonkel said. “But because of the year we’re having, we can expect a hellish fall, and apples and natural foods are going to be the driving forces. If people could just take super, duper extra precautions between now and when the snow flies ...”
He encouraged people who see neighbors with apples on the ground, garbage exposed, or vulnerable chickens running around to help them understand that good bears learn bad behaviors easily.
“It’s been so dry and droughty,” said Jonkel. “Now is the time to really buckle down.”