The bears are coming, Missoulians, and they want our apples.
Two years of radio-collar research on the black bears that surround, and sometimes invade, the Missoula Valley have given wildlife managers some tips on how to handle the challenge.
University of Montana wildlife biology graduate student Jerod Merkle found that while the urban bruins like garbage and birdseed too, apple-ripening coincides with the biggest spike in bear activity.
"We have to be ready with gleaning programs the minute they're ripe, or better, the week before," Merkle told members of City Club Missoula on Monday.
In his project, Merkle caught about 30 bears living on Missoula's fringes and radio-collared 16 of them. The collars sent satellite updates on each bear's location every three hours. Merkle plotted that travel against the locations of homes from Evaro Hill to East Missoula, as well as Pattee Canyon and Blue Mountain.
He found the bears start to creep into town with steadily increasing frequency from March until mid-June. Then activity breaks off a bit in July and August. That somewhat matches the period when backcountry berry crops and other forage are at their peak.
But when apple season comes on in early September, the bear incidents spike. Merkle sorted the statistics to predict the odds of triggering a bear encounter. On any given day, a home along Missoula's northern fringe has a 60 percent chance of being visited by a bear.
He found garbage days increase those odds by 24 percent. And when apples are available, the odds increase by 269 percent.
The garbage figures are a little shaky, Merkle said, because some people leave trash out all week. But they're still important, because of garbage's power to turn bears into urban foragers. That in turn changes their behavior, making them less scared of people or dogs - and more likely to risk trouble.
While there's no reliable population estimate for how many black bears live in the woods around Missoula, there have been as many as nine in the Rattlesnake Valley alone in a single day. Some come in and retreat, while others more or less settle in for the summer.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear management coordinator Jamie Jonkel said Missoulians could take heart in regulations already on the books to confront bear problems. That includes city ordinances prohibiting feeding wildlife or putting out garbage before 5 a.m. on the day of scheduled pick-up unless it's in a bear-resistant container.
That will make a difference when Missoula catches up with its northern neighbors, and their considerably bigger problems.
"Places like Whitefish, Kalispell and the Swan Valley are already dealing with grizzlies," Jonkel said. "Ordinances like these mean we won't get blind-sided when they show up. We're way ahead of other areas."
Getting people to follow those rules is almost as hard as keeping bears out of the apples. Merkle said he doubted he could convince Missoulians to cut down their fruit trees, but he hopes they might become less popular to plant.
In the meantime, a number of organizations have set up programs to help. The Great Bear Foundation and Garden City Harvest have volunteers who will pick apples off trees, and the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project loans apple cider presses to make use of the results. Jonkel said some Girl Scout troops are also volunteering the use of a big cider press.
The problem period could last well into November or longer, Merkle said. While mature female bears tend to hibernate as early as mid-October, some young males have been tracked wandering around deep into December.
"So your safe window is basically January to February," Merkle said. "It's not very long."
More resources for keeping homes bear-proof are available on the Internet at www.missoulabears.org.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.