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Bear Basics with Bernadette: The Sequence of Conflict

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STILL COURTESY OF @BEARSMARTBIGSKY (https://www.instagram.com/bearsmartbigsky/?hl=en)

By Kris Inman EBS CONTRIBUTOR

To some, it seems surprising to see bears walking down the neighborhood streets of Big Sky. But, when you consider that Big Sky sits within our wildland ecosystem, surrounded by national forest and designated wilderness, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

As rapid neighborhood development continues in places where bears live, bears will continue to move through.

Bears are naturally crepuscular, which means they are most active at dusk and dawn and remain active throughout the night. Often, a bear will discover trash in non-bear-resistant trash cans that are brought out the night before pickup, or very early in the morning. Bears then become accustomed to walking through neighborhoods to access a consistent food source.

“We get calls when people have to clean up trash strewn across their streets or driveways, or they see a bear in their trash. That is when they see bears as a problem,” said Kevin Frey, bear conflict specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “We set a trap to capture and relocate these bears to wilder areas, where hopefully, only natural food sources are available and the cycle of equating people with food can be broken and bears have a chance to be wild again.”

But bears have an amazing homing ability. In Revelstoke, British Columbia, biologists found that moved grizzly bears covered an area eight times greater than wild bears, which results in about 22 percent of bears returning to their original capture site and getting into conflict a second time because the attractant, trash, is still there. Some bears that have been captured and translocated more than 60 miles away from Big Sky have found their way back.

After enough food rewards from unsecured trash, bears become food-conditioned and see developed areas or homes as a food source and not a place to be fearful. Once this happens, conflict specialists call the bears “habituated bears” and they can become brazened obtaining unnatural foods.

These bold, habituated bears start moving through neighborhoods in the daytime and look beyond trash. An open window, garage door or an automatic door at a business or hotel beckons them in. They may find a bear-resistant trash can and attempt to break into it because they’ve learned its contents is food. This bold behavior also puts people at risk.

When a bear reaches this point, officials with MT FWP must make the difficult decision to euthanize the bear.

“The decision to lethally remove a bear is not an easy one,” Frey said. “We make this decision when a bear poses a risk to human safety, or we have moved a bear multiple times and it is becoming clear that the bear cannot change its behavior.”

The good news, however, is that the Big Sky community is changing its behavior: 70 percent of people use bear-resistant trash cans and negative interactions are no longer on the rise. 

That said, unsecured garbage is still causing numerous conflicts. To date in 2019, there have been over 41 conflicts requiring management actions. Six bears have been captured, five more have been stuck in dumpsters not closed properly, and one bear had to be lethally removed.

To ensure that we see bears in their natural environment rather than roaming developed areas, make the switch to bear-resistant trash containers. It will take everyone using a bear-resistant trash can to break the cycle.

Remember to follow Bernadette Bear on social media @bearsmartbigsky to learn how to make Big Sky’s story a positive one for bears, people and wild places.

Kris Inman is the community partnerships coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society and oversees the Bear Smart Big Sky campaign

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