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Just as surely as God makes little green apples in the spring, the bears of the Rattlesnake will be waiting to eat them in the fall.

But if a new volunteer effort to glean apples is successful, they’ll find mighty slim pickings.

The idea is to help folks pick their trees and yards clean of the ripe apples that draw the bears. It’s a simple equation – fewer apples equals fewer urban bears equals fewer human-bear encounters equals fewer dead bears.

Actually, the bears would probably be fine if they just stuck to apples. But once they wander down from Mount Jumbo and out of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, and into the adjoining neighborhoods in search of apples, they find all sorts of goodies that make the fruit just the first course.

Bird feeders packed with tasty seeds. Irresistibly stinky garbage. Nice, greasy barbecue grills. Compost piles fragrant with kitchen scraps.

“It’s mainly a smorgasbord of food rewards,” said Erin Edge, the “bear aware” coordinator for Defenders of Wildlife. “It’s like treat-training a dog. People are training these bears to stay near homes and not be afraid of people.”

Edge will talk Wednesday evening at Break Espresso to people interested in volunteering for a new program aimed at breaking that cycle. In addition to gleaning apples, volunteers will leave door hangings with “bear aware” tips and talk to people about the best ways to prevent bear problems.

The Rattlesnake Creek Watershed Group received a grant from the city of Missoula to coordinate those efforts.

Most timely – “Apple Gleaning 2012,” already under way, which works with Missoula Bears and the Great Bear Foundation to send out teams to scoop up the apples, and then share them in various ways.

Those teams are provided by the PEAS Farm/Garden City Harvest, the Great Bear Foundation and Opportunity Resources (they’ll charge an hourly fee).

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Sam Manno, who manages Opportunity Resources’ 160-acre farm near Frenchtown, said some of the apples will be composted, some will go to the animals, and some will become snacks for Opportunity staff and clients.

“This ties in with my farm plan – that everything at the farm is a piece of the puzzle which is there because it supports another piece,” he said.

“Pigs rototill and fertilize the ground where we plant pumpkins. Now we’re going to get apples and feed the pigs. We’re picking up apples so people don’t have a bear problem. It helps the people, it helps the bears and it helps the world in which we live,” Manno said.

That help can’t come soon enough, said Jamie Jonkel, who’s already awash in the problem bear calls he gets this time every year. Jonkel is Region 2 bear manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“Right now, just for the Rattlesnake, it looks like we have about five individual bears showing up as they do every year for the apples. More bears will be coming as our apples continue to ripen. We can expect just about every bear in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area” to prowl the neighborhoods, he said.

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Two of those bears – a large male and a smaller one – are already in trouble, with bear traps set for them. “They’ve gotten food rewards in the past” and are back looking for more, Jonkel said.

In addition to the calls he’s receiving, Jonkel is busy making calls of his own, to people who consistently leave their trash out, or hang bird feeders that lure bears.

“By God, it drives me insane that people are still putting out bird feeders. When people call and say they want a trap set because a bear got into their bird feeder, they get a long lecture,” he said.

Jonkel gives such people two courtesy warnings, first a phone call and then a visit. With a third violation, he calls Missoula Animal Control, now empowered to ticket people in “bear buffer zones” such as the Rattlesnake.

Animal Control supervisor Ed Franceschina said Tuesday that as of the previous day, he’s yet to ticket anyone this year. Yet.

“No news is good news,” he said.

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268.

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