LEARN­ING TO LIVE WITH GRIZ­ZLIES

The Oakdale Leader - - NEIGHBORHOOD VALUES -

GREAT FALLS, Mont. — While liv­ing among griz­zly bears might be new for peo­ple liv­ing on the prairie, co­hab­i­ta­tion with these mas­sive car­ni­vores is just part of life in north­west Mon­tana.

Mon­tana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Re­gion 1 is in the north­west cor­ner of the state and en­com­passes part of the North­ern Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide Ecosys­tem and its es­ti­mated pop­u­la­tion of more than 1,000 griz­zlies as well as the Cabi­net-Yaak Ecosys­tem and its pop­u­la­tion of 50-55 griz­zlies.

Res­i­dents there are no strangers to bears and years of ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing has cre­ated bear aware com­mu­ni­ties. Though each re­gion presents a dif­fer­ent set of chal­lenges for bear man­age­ment, Re­gion 1 of­fers years of ex­pe­ri­ence that cen­tral Mon­tana can look to as prairie griz­zlies become the new nor­mal.

LOOK­ING NORTH­WEST

The land­scape of Re­gion 1 and its head­quar­ters in Kal­ispell is both moun­tain­ous and flat.

Griz­zlies in this area come down from the moun­tains in the spring af­ter den­ning to look for food dur­ing the early spring bloom of the area. When the high el­e­va­tion snow melts, the moun­tains green up and berries start to pop, the bears head back.

“It’s just a dif­fer­ence in habi­tat and how the bears are us­ing the habi­tat,” Neil An­der­son, Re­gion 1 wildlife man­ager, said. “We have a berry econ­omy.”

Re­gion 1 doesn’t have near the num­ber of live­stock pro­duc­ers as cen­tral Mon­tana, but it does still deal with bears get­ting into chicken coops, rum­mag­ing through garbage, scav­eng­ing for fruit from fruit trees and pick­ing through other un­se­cured at­trac­tants.

The Flat­head In­dian Reser­va­tion and its sprawl­ing corn­fields of­fer griz­zlies sim­i­lar con­di­tions to what they’re find­ing from agri­cul­tural pro­duc­ers in cen­tral Mon­tana. An­der­son said they have been work­ing with the tribes to find ways to keep griz­zlies from snack­ing on corn.

No mat­ter where they are lo­cated, bears are op­por­tunis­tic and key into easy food sources.

BEAR AWARE ED­U­CA­TION

What makes Re­gion 1 strong in terms of its bear man­age­ment prac­tices is its long­stand­ing ed­u­ca­tion and pre­ven­tion pro­gram.

“They’ve been do­ing that now for so many years that it has built up a level of aware­ness and ed­u­ca­tion among res­i­dents that if they hadn’t been do­ing that, I think we would be see­ing more prob­lems nowa­days,” Dil­lon Tabish, Re­gion 1 in­for­ma­tion and ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram man­ager, said.

FWP of­fi­cials in cen­tral Mon­tana’s Re­gion 4 have been proac­tive in pre­par­ing prairie com­mu­ni­ties for the pres­ence of griz­zlies. Last year, FWP bear man­age­ment spe­cial­ist Wes­ley Sar­mento was sta­tioned in Con­rad to over­see the area east of U.S. High­way 89 from the Cana­dian bor­der, south to Fair­field and Simms and as far east as Stan­ford.

Sar­mento’s job is to han­dle bear con­flicts as much as it is to pro­mote con­flict pre­ven­tion and ed­u­ca­tion to the pub­lic.

But that’s some­thing Re­gion 1, out of ne­ces­sity, has been do­ing for years.

“That’s the pri­mary fo­cus of our bear man­age­ment pro­gram, the ed­u­ca­tion and help­ing peo­ple live in bear coun­try,” An­der­son said. “Mov­ing bears of­ten is the fo­cus when we have to go in and trap them or eu­th­a­nize them, but it’s a tool, and it’s a tool we try to use as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. We try to work on the ed­u­ca­tion and pre­ven­ta­tive side the most.”

FWP’s ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams help com­mu­ni­ties stay in­volved in man­age­ment and the ex­pan­sion of griz­zly pop­u­la­tions. Re­gion 1 hosts “bear fairs,” bear spray demon­stra­tions and com­mu­nity meet­ings to keep bear safety at the fore­front of peo­ple’s minds.

“It gets res­i­dents on board so they feel like they can be in­volved in this suc­cess­ful bal­ance between wildlife and liv­ing in the woods,” Tabish said. “Giv­ing res­i­dents a stake in this is so im­por­tant to con­ser­va­tion work because if folk feel like they don’t have a role to play in this, then I think that’s where you can re­ally lose so­cial tol­er­ance for any wildlife.”

Not ev­ery­one is on board with the nu­ances of liv­ing in bear coun­try, even in Re­gion 1. An­der­son and Tabish said there are some peo­ple they have to work to con­vince to se­cure their at­trac­tants and oth­ers they have to con­vince that a bear needs to be re­lo­cated.

Some res­i­dents like know­ing there is a bear in the area and pre­fer to have it around so they can take pic­tures and leave it in peace. How­ever, this can be as dan­ger­ous as hav­ing open food sources avail­able to bears. It’s never a good idea to ha­bit­u­ate bears to hu­mans and hu­man spa­ces.

“We re­ally try to make sure that res­i­dents know that the re­spon­si­bil­ity is also theirs,” Tabish said. “If you’re recre­at­ing, if you’re liv­ing or you’re work­ing in the out­doors, wild places have wild an­i­mals. There are things they can do to pre­vent con­flicts and to pre­vent an an­i­mal that un­for­tu­nately be­comes ha­bit­u­ated and has to be put down.”

Griz­zlies will con­tinue their move into the plains and more com­mu­ni­ties will need to become ac­cus­tomed to be­com­ing part of bear coun­try. It’s a scary thought for some, but An­der­son has some ad­vice:

“Folks should know you can live with griz­zly bears,” An­der­son said. “They’re a big car­ni­vore and you need to take pre­cau­tions and try to do things so you’re not draw­ing them into your homes, but it is pos­si­ble.”

BEAR MAN­AGE­MENT

Re­gion 1 wildlife man­age­ment of­fi­cials were forced to eu­th­a­nize two sub-adult male griz­zlies last week near Trego and Con­don af­ter sep­a­rate in­ci­dents that in­di­cated the bears had become food-con­di­tioned and un­afraid of hu­mans.

These bears pre­sented an un­will­ing­ness to stay away from peo­ple and one was un­fazed af­ter of­fi­cials tried to haze it with cracker shells.

Though it might have been sur­pris­ing for two bears to be eu­th­a­nized in such rapid succession, An­der­son said it’s not that odd.

“This year has ac­tu­ally been fairly nor­mal to quiet,” An­der­son said. “If it’s ab­nor­mal, it’s just because it oc­curred so close to each other. If you look through the his­tory, there’s usu­ally a bear or two or three that we have to put down. It’s usu­ally because they’re food con­di­tioned, ha­bit­u­ated to peo­ple and start get­ting to a po­si­tion where we don’t feel like we can re­lo­cate them any­where.”

On av­er­age, Re­gion 1 wildlife man­age­ment of­fi­cials have to eu­th­a­nize between one and three griz­zly bears in their area per year.

The sit­u­a­tion typ­i­cally un­folds like this:

— FWP gets a call about a bear break­ing into at­trac­tants or spend­ing a lot of time near peo­ple and houses

— Bear con­flict spe­cial­ists go and in­ves­ti­gate the sit­u­a­tion and look for ev­i­dence of the species and the at­trac­tant

— Of­fi­cials se­cure the at­trac­tant — get peo­ple to put garbage away, put elec­tric fenc­ing around chicken coops, pick up fruit from fruit trees in their yard — and mon­i­tor the sit­u­a­tion. This is of­ten enough to keep the bear away

— If the bear is per­sis­tent or the at­trac­tants can’t eas­ily be se­cured, of­fi­cials make a pre­ven­ta­tive move of the bear, of­ten within its home range, to give peo­ple a chance to clean up the at­trac­tants. FWP con­sults with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice when­ever it comes to mov­ing griz­zly bears

— If the bear con­tin­ues to come back af­ter at­trac­tants have been se­cured and FWP has han­dled it sev­eral times or the bear starts to act ag­gres­sively, FWP con­sults fur­ther with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice to de­ter­mine if the bear needs to be put down or other ac­tions should be taken

“If it’s a fe­male, es­pe­cially a fe­male with cubs, we try to give it more of a chance,” An­der­son said. “Sub-adult males, because they’re not as vi­tal to the pop­u­la­tion and we seem to have less luck mov­ing them some­times, we’re a lit­tle bit less tol­er­ant of some of their ac­tions. Still, we try to give them a pretty good chance.”

In some sit­u­a­tions, such as with the Trego bear, FWP will try a “hard re­lease” where bark­ing dogs and cracker shells are used to try to haze the bear and con­di­tion it to stay away from hu­mans.

One of 1,000 plus griz­zly bears in Mon­tana.

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