Reports detail efforts to reduce human-wildlife conflicts

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A grizzly bear eats oats in a field up the North Fork recently. Bears are also finding crops in Central Montana to their liking, as they slowly, but surely, migrate to the east from the Rocky Mountain Front.

The grizzly drew crowds in October as it prepared for denning by grazing with gusto in an oats field south of Polebridge along the North Fork Road.

As is often true in such encounters, a few spectators who acted recklessly in a quest for close-up photos created problems for the bear. Some people approached to within 20 feet of the grizzly, a subadult male, according to witnesses.

Ultimately, after attempts to haze the bear failed, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks decided to capture and move the bear. The animal was fitted with a GPS collar and released at Packers Roost in Glacier National Park.

“The bear moved to the northwest and south of Kintla Lake, where he was observed from a flight feeding on an ungulate carcass,” reported Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “He did return to the area near Polebridge but not to the oat field. He denned in the Whitefish Range.”

This bear, identified by Fish, Wildlife and Parks as bear NWM253, was one of 23 captures of 20 grizzly bears by the agency in 2018 in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem portion of Region 1.

Sixteen of the captured bears were released in the wild. Four were euthanized.

A narrative about the oats-grazing grizzly and other bears captured in the region last year can be found in the “Grizzly Bear Management 2018 Progress Report” recently published by the state wildlife agency.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks also published the annual “Black Bear and Mountain Lion Conflict Management” report and a separate “Grizzly and Black Bear Management Report Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.”

The reports chronicle efforts by the agency to reduce conflicts between humans and bears and mountain lions.

Numbers reported for 2018 suggest the totals for calls received by Fish, Wildlife and Parks related to grizzly bears, black bears and mountain lions were slightly above average in some cases and below average in others.

For example, the agency said it received 975 calls related to black bears in the greater Flathead Valley in 2018, which is higher than the 10-year average of 813. Yet there were fewer captures of black bears, with 22 captures, compared to the 10-year average of 35.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks said it received more than 150 calls last year related to grizzly bears in and around the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. That’s an increase from an average of about 100 calls a year.

The agency received 155 calls about mountain lions in the region during 2018, up from the 10-year average of 150 Two lions were killed to protect public safety because of habituation to people or food sources associated with people.

Not all of the calls received about the bears and mountain lions were reporting conflicts.

The black bear and mountain lion annual report notes: “In Northwest Montana, many areas with the highest densities of lions are also areas with expanding human population...With the influx of human inhabitants into ungulate and lion habitat, we can expect to see conflicts between lions and humans to continue.”

With bears, a key focus is helping residents do a better job of managing or securing “attractants” such as garbage, bird feeders, fruit trees, pet food, chicken feed and small livestock.

“The most effective conservation solution for reducing conflict and preventing management-related mortality of grizzly bears is to work one-on-one with residents on how they can share the landscape with bears,” suggests the Cabinet-Yaak report.

In 2018, wildlife personnel worked with landowners to deploy electric fencing, acquire bear-resistant trash containers and take other measures to make their properties less attractive to foraging bears.

Electric fencing is emerging as an especially effective tool to help reduce human-bear conflicts, said Dillon Tabish, a spokesman for Fish, Wildlife and Park’s Region 1.

Kim Annis, the agency’s grizzly bear management specialist for the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, said electric fencing has performed well.

“Of the 180 electric fences set since 2009, only two were ineffective at eliminating a conflict with a bear,” Annis wrote in the annual management report.

In one case, a design flaw allowed a grizzly to disable the fence and gain access to grain in a barn without getting shocked. In the other, two black bear cubs were willing to endure being shocked to reach a fruit orchard several times a week. A sibling and the cubs’ mother got shocked once and stayed away, Annis reported.

No bears in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem required being euthanized by wildlife personnel in 2018.

In contrast, personnel decided to kill four of the 20 grizzly bears captured during the year in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. The reasons cited for euthanization included a history of conflicts with humans, habituation to humans, conditioning to domestic food sources and property damage.

In one case, two yearlings were euthanized but their mother, which was not implicated in conflicts in the North Fork of the Flathead, was spared. She remained in the North Fork area and denned this winter on a mountainside there.

One yearling female grizzly was captured by Fish, Wildlife and Parks, but not because of human-bear conflict. She had been caught in a leghold trap set by a private trapper seeking bobcats.

Two Bear Air Rescue airlifted three wildlife personnel to within about 300 yards of the trap site. They dispersed an adult female grizzly and two other yearlings from the area before drugging and then releasing the bear — which had been caught by just one toe.

Separately, a subadult male captured at McGregor Lake and released on the west side of Lake Koocanusa on the edge of the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem was later found dead. The bear had been shot and the circumstances of the shooting are being investigated.

Grizzly bears continued to be listed as a threatened species in the Lower 48 under the Endangered Species Act.

Estimates suggest there are about 1,000 grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and about 55 to 60 grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.

Chad White, a bear technician with Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Eric Wenum, a bear and mountain lion specialist, wrote the 2018 “Black Bear and Lion Conflict Management” report.

They wrote, “Northwest Montana is prime bear and lion habitat, with the highest population densities in the state...Currently, some of the areas with the highest bear and lion densities are also areas with the highest human densities.”

They add, “Therefore, addressing conflict situations with bears and lions have become increasingly important aspects of Fish, Wildlife and Parks management programs.”

The reports are available to read online at http://fwp.mt.gov/regions/r1.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at 758-4407 or dadams@dailyinterlake.com.

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