Erik Wenum is known as the “bear guy,” and it’s an apt moniker, given the fact that he’s handled nearly 5,000 bears during his tenure with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
He’s the bear and mountain lion specialist for the state agency, but truth is, there just isn’t enough space on his business card to provide a simplified description of the work he does.
Wenum, 56, has been working with large mammals for more than 30 years, including 28 with Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He earned his degree at Colorado State and studied deer in that state before moving to Montana to get his master’s degree at Montana State University. He began working for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in its South Fork grizzly research project before becoming its bear and mountain lion specialist.
Most of his experiences have been with bears, mountain lions and people, but he also has handled scores of incidents involving deer, elk, moose and wolves.
He has trapped and relocated black and grizzly bears, re-denned orphaned bear cubs, euthanized bears that were deemed a threat to people, removed baling twine from the antlers of a white-tailed deer, removed a volleyball net from the antlers of a young bull moose at Bitterroot Lake and relocated a moose that had taken up residence at the Whitefish Lake Golf Course.
FWP Region 1 Supervisor Jim Williams has high praise for Wenum.
“Erik is probably one of the best biologists working under pressure with local, county, state and federal agencies in terms of wildlife and human conflicts,” Williams said. “He’s calm, cool and collected. He is uniquely qualified for his position.”
Williams said when Wenum arrived, mountain lion conflicts were rapidly increasing in the Flathead Valley.
“One of our biologists, Shawn Riley, created the zone management program for lions and Erik was front and center in dealing with those conflicts,” Williams said. “Erik worked with a lot of lions and he was probably the first in the country to work on those conflicts, teaching urban and rural communities to live with mountain lions.
“Other countries in South America and states here in the U.S. have modeled their lion programs after what Erik has done here,” Williams added.
“The big down side for him is that he is the only conflict specialist for the region, so he has to prioritize the calls he receives — which are many — and we have to make sure he gets a day off now and then.”
Wenum also has had to investigate fatal bear maulings, including one of a close friend, FWP Game Warden Brad Treat, that occurred about two years ago on the Green Gate Trail network between Coram and West Glacier, when Treat collided with a grizzly while mountain biking.
“That is the unfortunate side of the job, but those are the risks and hazards you have to deal with at times,” he said.
For Wenum, the list of animals he has worked with seems endless.
“I have trapped and handled every species of large mammal in North America with the exception of polar bear, musk ox and caribou, but they are on my bucket list,” Wenum said.
One moose encounter, he recalled, became a little sloppy when it vomited all over him. Wenum had responded to a Columbia Falls residence because a cow with a calf refused to allow a man to leave his home.
“She and the calf had taken up residence in his yard and whenever he’d try to leave to go to work, she’d charge right up to the deck, so he was pretty scared to go to work,” Wenum said.
When he responded to the home, he didn’t initially see either moose, but after the man safely made his way to his vehicle, Wenum found the cow and calf behind the home. He then utilized an innovative approach to try and get them to leave.
“I hit her with a snowball and she didn’t react, so I beaned the calf. When it made a noise, the cow charged me,” Wenum said.
He ducked behind a tree, but she curled her head around it and threw up all over his face and chest.
“I walked back to my truck wiping stuff off my face and clothes,” he said. “It was really pleasant,” he said with a sarcastic chuckle.
Wenum also has developed an international reputation as one of the leading authorities on bears.
As a member of the Wildlife Human Attack Response Team, Wenum helps lead investigations that typically involve bears and people.
He and FWP Regional Investigator Brian Sommers have traveled to several states and Canadian provinces at the requests of state fish-and-game agencies, teaching their personnel how to develop their teams and protocols and how to conduct these types of investigations. They also consult with states on mauling incidents.
But for all of his experiences and credentials, Wenum’s biggest frustrations involve the interactions with wildlife and people.
“We have a very large bear population here in Northwest Montana,” Wenum stressed. “There are up to 1,200 grizzlies and the black bear population has always been robust. There is great habitat for them here, but the human population has rapidly expanded here in the last 20 years and the turnover of people is very high. So it seems like we are always educating people about how to limit wildlife encounters.”
Wenum’s work with bears has been the most captivating for him.
“We’ve learned a great deal about bears and most of the attacks or incidents, we know what triggers them,” Wenum said. “Whether it’s a surprise encounter or in defense of a cub or food, we understand why they happen.
“But every so often, we hear about one that just doesn’t add up. We had one where a male grizzly circled a group of people in Glacier [National Park] and then charged into it and knocked one guy down before it retreated.
“The people hadn’t done anything to provoke it, but there was no obvious reason why it did what it did and why it homed in on the one guy,” he said.
“I always said I’d like to sit down and buy a bear a beer to get a better understanding of what makes them tick,” he added.
a growing white-tailed deer population has led to more lions following the deer in and around many Flathead communities, Wenum said.
He also said more people raising chickens in their backyards has increased the number of bear calls.
“We really can’t be surprised with the conflicts with so many food sources available to predators,” Wenum said. “The population has grown dramatically and more people are living in areas where bears have traditionally been and you add chickens, gardens, pet food that isn’t secured, there are going to be conflicts.”
Conflicts have kept Wenum and others with Fish, Wildlife and Parks busy giving programs to school students and community groups.
“We push the information and education side pretty hard so people know what’s going on and how they deal with it best,” Wenum said. “People are starting to get a better idea of what is living in and around their homes because so many are putting up game cameras.”
Despite some of the frustrations of the job, Wenum said his work is extremely satifying.
“I spend about 90 percent of my time working outside, I have a lot of freedom in my work and I get to work with a phenomenal group of people that are single-minded in the goals of resource management and protection.”
Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.