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Failed berry crop leaves bears desperate for food
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Failed berry crop leaves bears desperate for food

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Black Bears

A black bear and her cub graze in a meadow in Yellowstone National Park.

A failed, drought-stricken berry crop in western Montana is sending desperately hungry black bears into human environs with unusual frequency and boldness. 

That doesn't necessarily mean the famished bears are more dangerous than normal, according to bear managers, but it does mean that conflict-prevention measures are more important than ever, especially in places that may not be accustomed to the hungry bruins. The bears aren't out to get humans, bear managers noted, but they are getting into trouble around them.

"A lot of people are calling saying, 'This bear's acting unafraid of people and makes me feel threatened,'" said Daniel McHugh, a bear management technician with Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. "I think it's important for people to know that these bears are in desperation mode because it's a food failure year." 

McHugh, who is based in Choteau and works along the Rocky Mountain Front, joked in a phone call Monday that the workday never ends for bear managers this time of year. Bears are currently in hyperphagia, a pre-hibernation period of gorging when they eat as much as they can to pack on pounds before hibernation. Couple that already frantic fall feasting with a limited-at-best supply of natural food, and laser-focused bears start to seek alternative food sources related to human presence — like unsecured garbage, chicken coops and bird seed — even in broad daylight and near humans. 

"There's not a lot out there, so they are willing to take some more risks," McHugh said. "They're more bold. It's not as much of a sign of them losing their fear of people as it is a sign of them being really desperate." 

Along the Rocky Mountain Front, McHugh said, officials are seeing "a lot more black bear conflict down low and farther out from the mountains" and in "places where people don't expect to see them regularly."  

Road bear

A black bear crosses Marshall Canyon Road outside Missoula in June.

'Perfect storm' 

"Our berry crop's been terrible," McHugh said. "For a short amount of time we had some pretty good chokecherries," but few serviceberries, no huckleberries and no buffalo berries. Despite bears' remarkable struggle this year to find fattening foods, the poor berry crop isn't out of the ordinary. Bears eat more than just berries, but a slew of other natural foods essential to black bears' diet in particular have also taken a hit. 

"It's always very difficult to put your finger on the exact cause," according to Jamie Jonkel, a longtime FWP bear manager based in Missoula. "It's the berries and it is the drought, but there's other things that we probably can't figure out and probably won't figure out for a while." 

Across Montana and the West, he said, wildlife are now realizing that the best habitat is often on the valley floor, "where it's that beautiful emerald green all year round. The wildlife have just adapted to the better habitat, and the best habitat is urban habitat or urban fringe habitat." Humans have created vast expanses of irrigated landscape in cities, towns, subdivisions and agricultural lands that are often situated near natural water sources, like rivers. Meanwhile, "up on the mountain right now it is dry as a bone."

Huckleberries

Huckleberries weren't as abundant this summer due to dry conditions.

Dry

Most of Montana was in moderate, severe or extreme drought last week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Pondera and Teton counties, on the Rocky Mountain Front, were mostly in extreme drought, the second most severe of four levels of drought. West of the Continental Divide, much of the state was in a moderate drought — the lowest level, but still a drought — with a portion of southwest Montana in severe drought, the second lowest level. Only a small swath of south-central Montana was not in a drought or "abnormally dry," the classification just short of a declared drought. 

Beyond the drought, one of those "other things" behind bears' push into development, Jonkel said, is a dearth of insects this year. In a bad berry year, bears can usually rely on insects like wasps and ants for sustenance. But not this year.

"I just did not see the wasps everywhere like I usually do," Jonkel said in a phone call Monday. 

Bear diets vary with geography. Around Missoula and western Montana, black bears often dine on grasses and forbs (flowering plants like sunflowers, clover and milkweed). They also do "a lot of grubbing" for insects, Jonkel said. 

"They'll eat grasshoppers by the gallon," he said, adding that bears are also often "gobbling up night crawlers" in riparian areas. They also consume salamanders, small snakes, termites and bird and turtle eggs.

But it's berries' sugar content that is key to fattening bears in fall. It begins with serviceberries in early summer, then chokecherries through summer and toward fall, and then hawthorn at lower elevation and huckleberries higher. In August, Jonkel told the Missoulian that chokecherries "took quite a beating" from hail, and that heat and drought were taking their toll on berry plants bears rely on in fall. 

On Sept. 28, Jonkel and Chris Servheen, a member of Missoula's Bear Smart Working Group and a leading bear biologist who spent 35 years as the U.S. grizzly bear recovery coordinator, told the Missoula City Council in a committee meeting that this year's berry failure was driving conflict around the city. In years when there's a good crop of berries in the mountains, Jonkel told council members, there are "hardly any conflicts in Missoula at all," but this year "we've had a hard summer for our bears" which has led to "extreme behavior." 

A food failure in the late '90s was far worse. "It was unbelievable that year," Jonkel said on Monday, "everything failed, and we lost a segment of our population." Food failure summers for bears, he said, are like harsh winters that decimate elk and deer populations — they tend to occur cyclically about every 10 years. 

But this year's failure of natural food stands out for leading to a remarkable uptick in bears seeking food around humans.  

It's "a perfect storm that we had this food failure," Jonkel said, "This year I would say is a medium one, not a severe one. But it's hard enough that we've seen cubs orphaned, yearlings kicked out earlier than they should be, adult males in town." 

Black bear

A black bear finds rest and shade in a tree on Connell Avenue by Hellgate High School in Missoula on an August evening.

Bold bears

For lack of natural food, bears often seek human-made analogs. In lieu of berries, bears may turn to fruit from century-old fruit trees around cities and towns, Jonkel said: "In essence they're just shifting to a bigger and better berry." Instead of reptile or avian eggs, they may raid chicken coops. And compost piles and even gutters abound with worms. 

There's even somewhat of an equivalent for garbage, he mused. Bears are known to raid small mammals' root, tuber and seed caches, and cached kills from other predators — and unsecured garbage is sort of a human food cache.

"We haven't had a chance to tab it up," he said, "but we've had more conflicts this year than we've had in a long time." 

Usually when a bear is involved in a "breaking and entering" conflict, Jonkel said, the animal simply exploited human carelessness — a cracked garage door, a deteriorating shed, an open window — but "this year what we're seeing is bears actually trying to get in through kitchens." 

"Why, I have no idea, but some of it can be related to stress, food stress," he said. "They're food stressed and they're somewhat desperate, and they're doing things they wouldn't normally do because of a food failure year." 

In Missoula, bear specialists recently trapped and relocated at least six adult male black bears — generally the least likely to venture into town — from the area around the Hip Strip and immediately downtown, Jonkel said.

"It was all adult males that should have a huge fat layer, and they didn't," he said.

Outside of Missoula, one bear's quest for calories led to it snacking on apples — and to get at an apple, it stuck its head right between the feet of a man facing the other way while operating woodworking equipment, according to Jonkel. He recounted the story at an Oct. 3 joint meeting of the Missoula City Council and Missoula County Commission, at which both bodies signed on to a Bear Smart Resolution pledging to formally incorporate "Bear Smart" practices into each government's codes, planning documents and agency functions. 

"Fella was just doing some woodwork and had a couple sawhorses and it was under an apple tree, and there were apples all around him," Jonkel said. "And the way he keyed into the bear is he felt something between his legs. He looked down and the bear was trying to eat an apple between his legs. He immediately freaked out, tried to move the bear off, you know, banging hammers and boards together — all the bear could think about was the apples." 

The anecdote, Jonkel said, illustrated the degree to which bears in hyperphagia and deprived of their primary fattening food will ignore humans to seek food, often in circumstances where they would normally be wary. That bold behavior, easy to confuse with human-conditioning or even aggression, has been exacerbated by "extreme hyperphagia" the bears are experiencing this year. 

"A lot of the bears that we're seeing this year are just totally in that element of eating and getting the food that's in front of you," he said at the meeting. "If they're on a patch of clover, and you're banging pots and pans and screaming at it, most of them are just ignoring you so they can eat the clover or dandelions on your heavily watered lawn. So it's extreme behavior that we're seeing this year — it's not the norm — but in the fall, bears always go into that same mode." 

Although the bears aren't necessarily more aggressive during their extreme hyperphagia, their increased presence and boldness around humans raises the risk of conflict, particularly as they search for food in areas where bears are uncommon. 

"It can be dangerous, especially if people stumble onto a bear in a backyard, or a child goes out to empty the garbage and there's a female with cubs," Jonkel told officials, stressing the importance of securing attractants. 

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bears are less reliant on berry crops for fall sustenance.

Grizzly diet

Grizzly bears are more likely to eat grains and animal carcasses, McHugh said, and are more predatory toward wildlife and livestock, "so their food sources haven't really changed at all, other than missing out on a berry crop. But the berries aren't their only source of food this time of year."

At least three grizzlies have been killed on the Rocky Mountain Front recently, but none seemed to be motivated by extreme hyperphagia in the circumstances that led to their destruction by wildlife managers, McHugh said. In one recent case, on Oct. 11, a grizzly charged, knocked down and stepped on a man hunting pheasants near Choteau after the man happened across the bear in dense brush. The hunter shot the bear and survived the encounter without life-threatening injury, and the bear was later killed. McHugh said, "That was not an aggressive bear, that was a defensive bear."

In an instance of an abnormally aggressive grizzly, a 4-year-old female grizzly was killed in September after charging and biting a passing vehicle on a ranch near Bynum. Another Rocky Mountain Front grizzly was killed in September after a series of livestock depredations. Overall, McHugh said, "we haven't had abnormally aggressive behavior from grizzly bears." But grizzlies' overall presence around human development is increasing as populations of the federally protected species centered around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem expand well beyond those ranges. 

Bear fence

Jamie Jonkel, a Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear biologist, secures fencing to posts at Clark Fork School in Missoula's Rattlesnake Canyon before stringing electrical wire along the perimeter.

Lasting effects

Winter snowfall and bears' hibernation may not hit reset on the food failure or hungry bears' urban escapades.

"We'll have to wait and see," Jonkel said. "We're seeing such drought in the Rocky Mountain West here over time, each year it's a little drier. You're just seeing this sort of continual change across the West, and that's got to be affecting bear foods as well."

But there are also cycles to seasons' harshness, or lack thereof, and to food availability, he said: "Next year it could be a wonderful year, we get a lot of rain and we don't see any bears." A strong berry crop next year doesn't mean much if it doesn't last, though. Jonkel noted that even if conditions align for a perfect chokecherry crop, the weather could shift to 10 days of 100-degree heat "and all of a sudden all these ripe, luscious chokecherries just start dropping." 

Plus, as average temps rise over time, studies and models suggest that berry pollination could be disrupted and berry habitat could drastically shrink. Regardless of each year's berry crop, Jonkel said, cubs and yearlings whose mothers brought them into human development in search of food this year may remember the same trick the next time there's a harsh food failure. And the sows will remember it the next time they have cubs during a food failure. 

"That memory's instilled in the population," Jonkel said. 

More immediately, this year's food failure has put some people on edge, worrying what trouble hungry bruins might get themselves into as winter looms and natural food is scarce. Trina Jo Bradley, a cattle rancher in Birch Creek, directly west of Conrad and northwest of Choteau on the Rocky Mountain Front, wrote in a Sept. 2 opinion piece for the Havre Daily News that "there is no time to waste. Right now, the drought has taken a toll on the serviceberries and chokecherries our local bears normally rely on in the fall. Soon, bears will go into hyperphagia as they put on fat for winter, and the only things available for some of them to eat are crops and livestock." 

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Outdoors Reporter

Joshua Murdock covers the outdoors and natural resources for the Missoulian.

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