POLSON — Can an electric zap to the nose of a grizzly bear change the way it moves through a human-filled environment?
Over the course of the next couple of summers, University of Montana graduate student Kari Eneas is hoping to learn how the big bears react to a good stiff jolt of electricity from fences protecting chicken coops and other pens of small livestock.
To do that, Eneas will work with local landowners to install equipment that can track GPS-collared grizzly bears when they near the small-scale poultry and livestock producers’ animals that are protected from the bruins by electric fences.
Already a familiar face at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Natural Resources Department, Eneas has worked side-by-side with the tribes’ grizzly biologists over the past couple of years. She’s very familiar with the tribes’ efforts to encourage the use of electric fence to reduce conflicts between humans and bears.
While the use of electric fencing isn’t anything new, Eneas said her study will further test its effectiveness and explore the potential of the deterrent to change the way grizzlies move through the inhabited landscape of the Mission and Flathead valleys.
“We want to see if bears have a memory or reaction from that encounter,” Eneas said.
CSKT grizzly biologists have been tinkering with the use of electric fence to deter bears for the past 15 years or so, said CSKT wildlife program manager Dale Becker.
“We know that if they are maintained properly and checked pretty often, they can be quite effective,” Becker said.
But right now, no one knows if the shock is enough to make the bears think twice about looking for an easy meal in a place where humans reside.
“You can just about imagine what the bears feel when their wet nose or fur comes in contact with the electric fence,” Becker said. “The bears certainly get a good jolt out of it. We’re hoping that individual bears will learn to avoid particular locations and certain types of situations.”
“After they encounter an electric fence, they may decide that food source isn’t worth it,” he said. “They may start to relate that negative sensation to that type of surrounding. Those sights and smells may be viewed in such a negative sense that they decide they’re not interested in looking for food there.”
Over the years, Becker said changes in management techniques have made a difference in the way grizzly bears forage for food. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there were quite a few conflicts in the Mission Valley that ended in both cattle and bears being killed.
After biologists worked with local ranchers to change the way they dispose of livestock that die unexpectedly, and to tweak the way they manage their herds, the numbers of conflicts between larger ranching operations and grizzly bears dropped, Becker said.
“While larger livestock as a food source is still there, a generation of bears appear to be looking elsewhere,” he said. “There are other baubles out there to tantalize them like chickens and smaller livestock.”
Eneas’ research will hopefully add another piece to the puzzle to help reduce further conflicts between humans and grizzlies.
“We are trying to figure out what works best to keep bears and people separate, but co-existing on the same landscape,” Becker said.
Becker was happy that Eneas decided to take the lead on the research project.
“She’s an extremely sharp student, a real go-getter,” he said. “She will do an outstanding job. She is really task oriented and approaches everything she does with a real high sense of professionalism.”
Eneas currently is reaching out to private landowners who either have electric fences already installed or would like to have a fence installed for the duration of the project.
Anyone interested in taking part can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Kari.Eneas@cskt.org, or by phone message at 406-883-2888, Ext. 7217. People should provide their name, place of residence and phone number she can use to reach them.
Education will be a key component of Eneas’ work.
This spring, she plans to work with CSKT grizzly biologists to capture a few bears and collar them with a relatively new styled GPS collar that provides a location every 3 ½ hours. When the bear nears one of the areas being monitored, the collar provides a location every half-hour.
“It allows me to get a fine scale snapshot of the bear’s movement through the landscape within a certain perimeter,” she said. “It should give us an idea of how it interacts with the fence and then how it reacts afterwards in its movements through the landscape.
“I’m really excited about being able to use these GPS collars,” she added. “It will be the first time that we’ve put them out. Once the bears emerge next spring — which happens typically in April and May — I’ll get on the ground and hopefully collar some bears.”
The study will last three years, with two field seasons.