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Know the West

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.