By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – With six incidents this season, bear conflicts requiring official intervention in Big Sky are up more than 50 percent from last year, but these numbers tend to be cyclical according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Grizzly Bear Management Specialist Kevin Frey.
Of the five bears captured, three were relocated and released, and two were euthanized. The sixth bear on FWP’s radar for repeat food-related house break-ins was killed by a vehicle in the vicinity of Spanish Peaks Mountain Club. Most of the incidents have occurred in the Mountain Village area, although there has also been problematic bear activity in the Meadow.
On Aug. 2, a female black bear and two cubs entered a home near the entrance to Moonlight Basin and foraged for food in the residence’s kitchen. The bears gained access through the screens of open, low level windows. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks also received a report of a black bear getting into garbage cans below Lake Levinsky at Big Sky Resort.
The homes tend to be occupied vacation rentals and Frey suggested the correlation could be that visitors are not as “bear aware” as residents. He relayed one anecdote of a couple waking up and finding bears inside the home, although he said generally bears exit the premises as soon as they are discovered.
Ennion Williams, general manager of Big Sky Vacation Rentals, said the company advises their guests to keep ground level doors and windows locked; and not to leave food in vehicles or coolers on porches—or anything, anywhere that might attract a bear.
“We try to instruct people to take preventative measures so bears don’t get into properties,” said Williams, who nonetheless has received bear-related reports from renters. “They are there,” he said. “But they’re usually not aggressive. Most of the time when you encounter these bears they run.”
Frey said the problem bears tend to be sub-adults, who at 2 to 3 years old have recently been rejected by their mother.
“It’s a stressful time in a bear’s life,” Frey said. “They’re learning to get along without their mother, and make it on their own, so to speak.”
He said that makes them susceptible to easily obtainable food rewards like bird seed, dog food and garbage.
The most recent capture occurred Aug. 6 in the Mountain Village, and this animal was put down. FWP makes the determination whether a bear should be relocated or eradicated on a case by case basis, taking into account the particulars of the break-in, including how easily accessible the food reward was, and the number of repeat offenses.
“We evaluate that and potentially give that bear another chance,” Frey said. “But it comes down to a public safety concern once they start repeatedly entering houses. So we hate to see bears get food rewards. … Every time you have to put a bear down it’s frustrating and sad and hard. … You know what needs to be done for bears overall and the public safety but it’s really sad when you’re there looking at a bear and trying to decide its fate.”
While Frey clearly prefers relocation to euthanization, he said the method presents its own challenges. Although FWP puts a distance of 40 to 50 miles between the capture area and release site, and in a habitat with adequate natural food resources, the bears often find their way back to civilization—either to Big Sky or elsewhere.
“Relocation is difficult because a problem that was created in Big Sky often becomes another community’s problem,” Frey said.
It’s common to see a spike in bear activity this time of year. As summer winds to a close, bears enter hyperphagia, a period of excessive eating and drinking in preparation for hibernation.
“From now through early October the bears are going to be on serious quest for high-calorie foods,” Frey said.
Again, he urged residents and visitors to minimize human-bear conflicts by not leaving attractants available or accessible for the animals.
“Any effort to not feed bears or leave food available for them will help everyone who lives here and it will help the bears out also,” Frey said.
For more information on bear safety visit bscomt.org/natural-resource-council/bear-smart/. If you have a bear-related incident that requires assistance call 911 or 800-tip-mont.