State bear managers killed a grizzly bear on Tuesday suspected of playing a part in one of the busiest bear conflict seasons on record last year.
“This was at the same spot where last year we had conflicts,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife management specialist Jamie Jonkel said of 2019’s bear activity. “We set traps then but never caught it. Then we had a calf disappear and found tracks and set the traps. Wildlife Services caught it yesterday and the decision was made to remove it. It looks like 2019’s already panning out to be a busy season.”
The sub-adult grizzly was suspected of killing at least two calves this spring in the Helmville Valley as well as three last year. Its activities were part of a barrage of bear activity in the Seeley-Swan, Clearwater and Blackfoot areas northeast of Missoula, Jonkel said.
“In an average year, we have three to five livestock depredations and around 15 agricultural or residential conflicts,” Jonkel said. “Last year we had 80, just in the Clearwater-Blackfoot area.”
Most of those involved grizzly bears getting into pet or chicken feed, unsecured freezers or overloaded fruit trees, especially at homes around Ovando, Helmville and Lincoln. Jonkel added the report numbers don’t reflect the full problem. For example, two grizzlies spent two nights last June raiding Ovando, getting into unsecured garbage at multiple homes and businesses, grain in a chicken coop, and a garbage wagon.
“These conflicts were all lumped and counted as one conflict episode,” Jonkel said. A single grizzly nicknamed Baptiste crossed over the Mission Mountains from the Flathead Indian Reservation and caused multiple problems in Seeley Lake, including killing a pig. That bear was killed by FWP Region 1 wildlife managers last fall.
A couple of unusual factors contributed to the record reports of 2018. Large wildfires in 2017 in the Seeley-Swan and Blackfoot valleys may have displaced some bears, who then came out of hibernation to an extra-heavy snowpack last spring. That led many to explore the fields of alfalfa, barley and oats planted in the Ovando and Helmville vicinities, where they also encountered homes full of attractive human food. A heavy wild berry crop in the summer of 2018 further concentrated grizzlies in the valley bottoms near people.
FWP Region 1 also had a busy 2018, with bear managers capturing grizzly bears 23 times. Of those, 17 were outside designated grizzly recovery areas, indicating bears are exploring private property beyond the remote wilderness forests of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. That ecosystem extends through Montana’s Rocky Mountains from Interstate 90 to Glacier National Park and the Canadian border.
Bear managers in Region 1 recorded more than 150 calls in 2018, although some were just people seeking grizzly information and not reporting conflict incidents. The average is about 100 calls a year for the whole region.
FWP wildlife management specialist Tim Manley said one property near the Flathead River documented eight separate grizzlies feeding on fruit at night. However, the bears did not get into area chicken coops, which had been protected by electric fencing.
“Across the board, electric fencing is the common denominator with success in reducing conflicts,” R1 spokesman Dillon Tabish said. “Since 2009, we’ve installed about 180 electric fences in the Cabinet-Yaak area, and only two have proven ineffective at stopping conflicts permanently. One was because of a flaw in the fence, and the other was a little black bear cub that was willing to take the full jolt to get at a fruit tree.”
Jonkel said electric fencing was proving to be a good “passive-aversive method” of training bears to leave food attractants alone.
“They’re like a helicopter with a lot of moving parts, so you have to keep them maintained,” Jonkel said of the fences. “If you don’t watch over it, it can be non-functional. Otherwise, it’s a great tool for keeping bears away from homesites.”