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Dispatches from the Wild: The March of the bears 

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A black bear tracks through snow in Yellowstone National Park. PHOTO BY DIANE RENKIN / NPS

By Benjamin Alva Polley EBS COLUMNIST 

On March 4, Missoula’s KGVO-AM News reported, “After a mild winter, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is reporting that bears all over western Montana are emerging from hibernation nearly a month early.” 

This news flash seemed alarming, so I contacted FWP Region One, Two, and Three—generally, these FWP regions represent northwest Montana, west-central Montana, and southwest Montana, respectively—out of curiosity to see if this was accurate. 

Yes, we had a mild winter in western Montana. Yes, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region Two has received reports that bears have come out of hibernation a month earlier than normal. But this behavior isn’t unheard of and is not necessarily the case throughout western Montana. 

It is accurate to say that biologists in western Montana usually see bears coming out of their dens over the next several weeks. Still, it depends on the species and gender, and what part of western Montana. 

KGVO reported the following quote from Vivaca Crowser, FWP Region Two education and program manager. 

“In a typical year, we think of April 1 as kind of the target date for bear activity, but this year, in line with what we were just talking about, we already have reports of bears out and about because the conditions just are making them vacate [their dens],” Crowser told KGVO. “It’s time to get up and it’s okay to be out there.” 

I emailed Crowser on March 7 to clarify this news briefing. 

“I think it is important to note that we’re seeing earlier bear activity in some places, but it is not unheard of,” she wrote. “Just last year, for example, we had a few grizzly bears confirmed out at the end of February. This year’s mild winter has prompted a little bit earlier bear activity, but it is not drastically different than an average year.” 

Not all bears wake up at the same time. Males generally wake up first, followed by females without newborn cubs, and finally females with newborn cubs. It also depends on temperature and food availability and whether or not the bears had enough fat reserves stored up. If they are starving, they will wake and amble about in search of easy food at any time throughout the winter.  

Some bears are waking, but not all.  

Crowser wrote that FWP has seen some black bear activity in Missoula’s Rattlesnake neighborhood.  

“One bear got into garbage there, which is a reminder to secure garbage and other bear attractants—pet food, bird feeders, etc.—around your home now to prevent conflicts. We also had a few grizzly tracks confirmed in the Blackfoot Valley. So, not a lot, but activity will continue to increase over the coming weeks,” Crowser wrote.  

For information relevant to the Bozeman, Big Sky and West Yellowstone area, I contacted  Morgan Jacobsen, FWP communications and education program manager in Region Three—Region Three includes the counties of Beaverhead, Broadwater, Gallatin, Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Madison, Park, Silver Bow, and part of Deer Lodge. 

“This year has not been atypical in Montana’s portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” Jacobsen wrote. “Right now is typically when we start to see bears emerge from their dens here.” 

I also contacted Dillon Tabish in northwest Montana. Tabish is the regional communication and education program manager for Region One. 

“Nothing out of the ordinary to report,” he wrote. “In northwest Montana, black bears typically emerge earlier since they tend to den at lower elevations compared to grizzlies that typically den in the mountains. Not always, but that’s typically how it goes up here, while other parts of the state have grizzlies denning at lower elevations, which is why they can emerge in plain view sooner.” 

He added, “It’s still pretty cold up here, so it seems like we’re on schedule for a normal spring green-up—for example, the arrival of green vegetation, aka fresh food— which usually starts in April. That’s when bears and other wildlife start moving around.” 

Bears are not necessarily waking up a whole month early throughout western Montana. There is no reason to be alarmed, but this is a great time to be bear aware and properly store food attractants like garbage, pet food and bird feeders. 

Benjamin Alva Polley is a place-based storyteller with stories published in Outside, Adventure Journal, Popular ScienceField & StreamEsquireSierra, Audubon, Earth Island Journal, Modern Huntsman, and other publications at his website www.benjaminpolley.com/stories. He holds a master’s in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism from the University of Montana. 

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