Bears in the backyard, oh my

 

A grizzly bear lumbered through my herb garden before winter set in. It was a striking visual experience. His muscles powered under his fur like an overloaded freight train, and his eyes swung to take me into his scrutiny.

Northwest Montana is bear country — grizzly bear country, to be precise. Unimpeded by fences, unaware of boundary lines, grizzly and black bears tromp across our property. Our house, like many others around us, is simply a speed bump on their feeding-ground highway.

This is country where garbage and pet food easily become animal attractants, though most people know that opening a backyard McDonald’s for wildlife is taboo.

So, I was surprised when 2004’s human-caused death toll of grizzlies topped any of the last 30 years. The most recent high tallied 19 deaths in 2000, but this year’s kills rocketed to 31.

While some grizzlies met their demise at the hands of poachers, most were delinquents in rural areas — over half on private land — where they’d become hooked on bird feeders or pizzas in garbage cans. Unfortunately, bears that rummage through human stuff eventually find themselves at the wrong end of the bear-management game — transported to other locations, or killed if they can’t change their ways.

Equally disturbing is the number of females killed — 18 grizzlies. For a species listed as threatened, the loss of females is serious for future populations, especially when a grizzly’s reproductive capabilities are the least productive of all the large mammals. To maintain a viable population, government guidelines assume only four female deaths per year.

While a variety of factors may have led to an increase of bears marauding garbage dumpsters — including a bad berry season and an increase in people building houses in grizzly corridors — it’s sad when a bear loses its life due to human laziness. What is so hard about taking care of garbage correctly?

This year, Glacier National Park, an enclave of prime grizzly bear habitat, reported no human-caused grizzly deaths. Considering that nearly two million tourists annually enter its borders, that’s a big feat. Though Glacier ‘s roadless areas and its no-hunting policy go a long way to protect bears, here’s what the park really does right:

Glacier imposes strict fines for mishandling food outdoors. Every front-country campground and picnic table wears a list of no-nos stapled to it with fines that will be incurred for failing to comply. People are told that all their food and pet food, dishes, cookware and garbage belong inside vehicles when people are not present at the campsite. Backcountry hikers are provided with poles or bars to hang food up high, and sleeping sites are separated from cooking sites. These precautions train bears to find food sources apart from humans.

Glacier also uses bear-resistant garbage cans and dumpsters. As park biologist John Waller recently told the Hungry Horse News, "Instead of putting your garbage in an open dumpster, put it in a bear-resistant dumpster… we’ve done it here for decades and it works."

Because bears are opportunistic and canny feeders, they gravitate to ready food sources similar to the way people grab a quick munchie when hungry. But Glacier’s enforcement of food and garbage policies has drastically reduced the bad-bear syndrome.

Bears are quick learners. It’s the job of Tim Manley, a bear management specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, to re-educate the omnivores away from humans. Using Karelian dogs to haze bears, firing bean bags and rubber bullets at the animals, firing shots in the air or just making a lot of noise, he tries to teach bears that humans are to be avoided. And many bears learn, unless they have been already conditioned otherwise.

We have a lot to learn, too. Many folks plop a house down on wilderness fringes but fail to assume responsibility for the wildlife blundering -- so to speak — across their property lines. So, a chunk of Manley’s education efforts targets homeowners who may be new to the West. Storing garbage — along with Fido’s food and livestock grain — inside the house or garage is an effortless solution. And while bird feeders are fun to watch, birds don’t need seed in summer when bears are apt to raid backyard feeders.

Perhaps we ought to copy Glacier National Park and impose fines on those who fail to take precautions with their garbage or pet food. The message, "Do Not Feed the Bears," has been around a long time, but bears have one-upped us. Clearly, grizzlies learn faster than we do.

Becky Lomax is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Whitefish, Montana, with grizzly bears in her backyard.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...