Bad year for bears
Breaking and entering. Damaging rental vehicles. Stealing food. Digging in trash. Distracting drivers. The rap sheet is a mile long.
The offenders in question: black bears.
While bears are a memorable creature to encounter, the truth is these wild residents are better off out of sight and away from people, human places and construction traffic.
That hasn’t been the story this summer. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials have found recently, bear and human encounters are taking place at an accelerated rate compared to years past.
And as the bears now enter hyperphagia—a period of high energy and excess eating and drinking in order to fatten up for their long winter’s sleep—chances are good these encounters will continue into the fall.
Kevin Frey is “The Bear Guy” for Big Sky. When asked how long he’s been monitoring the population, he quickly joked, “Too long.”
The FWP bear management specialist is passionate about Big Sky’s bears.
He captured his first “problem” bear in Big Sky 25 years ago.
With all that historical context, Frey didn’t hesitate when he said this summer had been a bad year for bear conflicts in Big Sky.
“It’s been cyclical over the years,” he said. “Every once in a while we have a bad year when it comes to conflicts, and this has been a busy summer.”
As of the end of August, through more than 30 reported incidents, six bears have been captured in Big Sky due to human conflict. One of those was so habituated to people it had to be euthanized and the other five were relocated far away from where they’d learned to find an easy dinner. Unfortunately, out of those, a former Big Sky bear that was re-homed outside of Livingston managed to roam 20 miles into the city and eventually had to be put down as well.
The issue boils down to human-provided attractants that bears simply cannot turn their furry cheeks away from. Able to smell food sources from over a mile away, they sense food all around them. That’s fine when that food source is locked away, but issues arise when snacks become readily accessible.
“We talk to people about not leaving their garbage out, but then they leave it in the garage,” Frey said of recent issues he’s addressed. “And they leave the garage door open. Or they leave their screen door, or their windows open. The bears come to look. The next thing you know they’re inside, getting into things.”
Food in coolers left in workers’ truck beds also have been an issue.
“It’s no different than you or I, if someone wants to cook us up some supper for free, we’ll probably show up,” Frey said. “They’re getting the most calories for the least effort.”
Some years bears are especially inclined to search out food sources from humans—namely when their natural menu items, like berries and nuts, are scarce. But thanks to a wet spring, the natural food sources are abundant this year in Big Sky. The problem, Frey thinks, is endemic to the location.
“Big Sky is unique because it’s built right in the middle of black bear habitat,” said Frey, who also works with other communities in FWP’s Region 3, like West Yellowstone and Gardiner. “And all the construction even creates more food for bears, allowing clover and grasses to grow more readily. It’s a black bear heaven. Females raise their cubs here, they become used to people, so they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong when they walk by houses. They might see 100 people a day and think nothing of it.”
Longer-term residents may be aware of the need to keep attractants like trash, dog food, fruit trees, barbecues and the like inaccessible to bears. It’s often the visitors to the community who arrive lacking bear-awareness.
Frey said he’s actually witnessed people throwing food off decks to hungry bears.
“And at that point, the bear is doomed,” he said. “It can be comical, but we need to consider that they’re wild, and are capable of hurting someone.”
Frey couldn’t think of any human-bear encounters that led to human injury in Big Sky, but did note every year people are killed by black bears in the United States.
Adam Pankratz, warden captain for Region 3 also touched upon this safety issue, and the challenges Big Sky faces.
“We’re constantly having to reeducate people in Big Sky,” Pankratz said. “We’ll never get to the point of fully solving the bear issue in Big Sky. But we care about these animals, and each other, so we have to do the right things. And that might mean we see less bears in the long run.”
Efforts to educate residents and visitors are underway via the Bear Smart Big Sky Committee—part of the Big Sky Community Organization. Representatives from the local resorts, owners associations, property management, the Forest Service, FWP and local garbage pickup companies meet periodically to swap stories and create solutions to bear-human issues. Their most recent project is a social media campaign led by a new bear aware mascot—Bernadette the Bear. Watch for messages from Bernadette in the coming weeks.
The committee is also continuing its work looking into a bear smart certification for homeowners’ associations around Big Sky.
“The easy part has been determining what a bear smart community looks like,” said Kris Inman, Wildlife Conservation Society partnerships coordinator and leader of the BSBS committee. “The hard part has been evaluating follow through. But, we are excited to figure it out.”
Frey and Pankratz commended the community’s effort to curb bear conflicts, and hope as the community continues its growth that the messages keep finding their way to newcomers. It’s a never-ending educational effort, but one they believe is worth repeating.
“Sometimes I feel defeated, after doing this for so long,” Frey said after rehashing the recent incidents he’s dealt with in Big Sky, most often stemming from vacationers inadvertently and sometimes purposefully attracting bears to their residences. “You get progress, and then you have a summer like this. But if you can even get through to a few people, it’s ultimately helping the bears.”