One sure way for a Montana community to co-exist safely and happily with local bears is to bear-proof the community, say some.
The effort to bear-proof Montana one community at a time is being led by a few dozen people, including Bill Lavelle of Columbia Falls, Erin Edge of Missoula and Carrie Hunt of Florence. The job of convincing people to secure garbage in bear-proof receptacles, helping residents to communicate about and map bear sightings, and working with local garbage haulers to protect bears from exposure to garbage is big.
"It is about saving bear's lives, but it is also about creating cleaner, safer communities," said Edge who has been a member of the Rattlesnake Bear Task Force.
Edge, who works for the Defenders of Wildlife in Missoula, said that in the past a rendering plant, orchards, mink farm, garbage and compost piles in the Rattlesnake neighborhood guaranteed that bears learned dangerous habits and passed them along to the next generation. As more people moved into the area, the situation worsened.
In 2003, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks received over 1,000 bear complaints from the Rattlesnake area. Three bears in the Rattlesnake were destroyed and 15 of the estimated 30 bears that live there were relocated.
Since 2004, the Rattlesnake Bear Task Force has worked to reverse this situation through door-to-door efforts to clean up the neighborhood, better coordination with the local garbage hauler, and public education including an informative web site. In turn the task force has inspired other projects in Missoula, including a bear fair that local Girl Scouts are organizing May 12 in Pattee Canyon.
The founder of Bear Aware, Flathead, Bill Lavelle, began helping to bear proof Ptarmigan Village, on Big Mountain outside of Whitefish, shortly after he arrived in Montana from Washington D.C.
"It was 1998, an especially bad berry year. I spent two or three hours every day cleaning up the mess the bears left after dumpster diving the night before," he said. "I'd see bear scat with plastic bags and used diapers in it and it just really got to me. Something had to be done for these bears."
Lavelle, as maintenance manager, was in a perfect position to help. He contacted the local garbage hauler and urged them to get bear resistant containers. Soon after, Lavelle began working with other local volunteers, FWP, the Wind River Bear Institute and local businesses to get the word out that a fed bear is a dead bear.
Since then Whitefish has passed a solid waste ordinance requiring solid waste to be stored in bear resistant containers or securely inside of a home, garage or other animal resistant enclosure until the morning of pick up. The city has also placed bear resistant garbage receptacles in city parks and informed residents about the need to bear-proof through a public works newsletter.
A lot of work remains to be done to prevent bears from becoming food-habituated and to recondition those that are in these neighborhoods and communities. Last season, FWP bear managers in the Kalispell area captured eight grizzly bears and had to remove three of them from the population.
Working to prevent these losses is Carrie Hunt's mission. Hunt's Wind River Bear Institute is internationally recognized for the techniques it has developed to reverse the behavior of food-conditioned bears. Hunt and her teams use distinctive black and white Karelian bear dogs, cracker shells and other aversive conditioning with grizzly and black bears.
"After 11 consecutive years working with FWP we know that food-habituated bears can be successfully returned to wild foods and their wild ways—but only if they don't find new food rewards in the future," Hunt said.
Hunt said about 75 percent of her teams' work in the U.S and Canada is public education.
"Communities have the power to create a positive future for bears, but it takes a change in human behavior, and that is a huge goal," she said.
Fortunately, there are people in Montana willing to step up to that challenge.
Editors Note: Those interested in helping to bear-proof their neighborhood can get started by going to the FWP web page at fwp.mt.gov and click on Be Bear Aware. For more on bear-proofing in the Missoula and Seeley Lake areas, contact Erin Edge at: 406-549-4896, or go to: www.rattlesnakebears.org or www.seeleybearaware.com . For more on bear-proofing in the Kalispell area, contact Bill LaBelle at: 406-249-7241.