A hot, dry summer and multiple wildfires can mean bear trouble. Trouble for bears and trouble with bears. During this time of year bears are vacating the high elevations and searching for food and relief in lower elevation river valleys—areas where we live and play. With backyard bear encounters on the rise over the past few weeks and hunting season openers right around the corner, now is the time to remember a few important tips on living and recreating with bears.
The good news is that bears’ natural food sources of are plentiful this year. Chokecherries, hawthorns, rosehip, berry wood, dogwood, wild plum and other food of choice for bears are filling our river valleys and lining the sides of creeks. The bad news is that if bears can find an easier food source first (like an unsecured garbage can), then can easily be distracted from the berry crop and stop to snack on last night’s pizza leftovers.
Once bears become dependent on neighborhood food sources, the behavior is hard to alter and the bears often have to be relocated. An animal that returns time and again after it is relocated is considered a threat to public safety and may have to be euthanized.
So what can you do? Put away pet food, clean dirty barbeque grills, and store garbage in bear-resistant garbage cans or in a secure building. Fruit trees can also attract bears—pick fruit as soon as it is ripe and keep the ground under the trees fruit-free. Take down bird feeders or hang them well away from their house and out of a bear’s reach, which means at least 15 feet up and four feet out from the nearest tree or building. Adding a catch plate underneath the feeder to keep bird seed from dropping to the ground is also a good idea. Limit compost piles to grass, leaves, and garden clippings. Kitchen scraps should be composted indoors, where they are away from a bear’s reach and smell, before adding them to garden soil.
Although we still spot bears in our neighborhoods, the number of bear conflicts has been decreasing over the past few years. Homeowners and communities are starting to create bear-resistant environments. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) bear specialist, Jamie Jonkel, says that a lot more people are remembering the tips on living in bear country and keeping their backyard goodies inside or out of reach. As long as we keep bear attractants away, bears will keep relying on natural food sources and we’ll have fewer human safety concerns and less bears that have to be relocated.
The upcoming hunting season is another reason to be in tune to bear activity in the valleys. While we are out searching for deer and elk, black bears and grizzlies are hunting for moist grasses, plants and berries. As Jonkel puts it, where you see berries, expect bears.
Jonkel reminds hunters to pay attention to fresh bear sign, such as tracks and scat. Hunters should avoid going alone when possible and let someone know their detailed plans. Carrying bear pepper spray throughout the hunt (and making sure you know how to use it before you go) is also important. After making the kill, get the carcass out of the area as quickly as possible. When field dressing the carcass, keep your can of bear pepper spray within easy reach. Use special precautions if you must leave and then return to a carcass, including placing the carcass where it can be easily observed from a distance to make sure it is clear of bears before entering the area. Never frighten or haze a grizzly that is near or feeding on a carcass, Jonkel says.
The best time to plan for how to react to a bear encounter at close range is long before the encounter occurs, and there are a lot of materials available to help you prepare. Contact FWP at (406) 542-5500 to request a brochure on “How to Hunt Safely in Grizzly Country,” or visit the FWP website at fwp.mt.gov and click on Be Bear Aware.