By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – Living in the mountainous landscape of Big Sky, residents and visitors come into contact with area wildlife on a daily basis. Whether watching birds chirp on a tree branch, or catching a fleeting glimpse of a fox, we’re fully immersed in a wildland ecosystem.
However, this immersion can come at a cost to area wildlife—including two black bears captured near Big Sky and euthanized last year—when humans make poor stewardship decisions.
Food-conditioned animals are a common problem for communities at the wildland-urban interface like Big Sky, as well as increasingly in our national parks.
Early in January, officials from Grand Teton National Park released a statement after a food-conditioned red fox was killed for displaying bold behavior like approaching people and vehicles in search of food.
“Destruction of a wild animal is one of the most difficult actions we have to take as park stewards,” said Superintendent David Vela in the release. “Hopefully this can serve as a cautionary reminder. I encourage everyone to help protect wildlife by securing food sources, including dog food and fish scraps, and by using the ‘scare, don’t stare’ tactic to discourage approaching foxes.”
According to the release, the “scare, don’t stare” tactic includes yelling, clapping, stomping, and avoiding eye contact in an effort to dissuade food-conditioned animals from approaching humans. It does not need to be used with foxes that behave naturally.
Yellowstone National Park has also experienced issues with food conditioning. All park animals are susceptible, but grizzlies, black bears, coyotes, fox, ground squirrels and chipmunks are particularly at risk, said park bear biologist Kerry Gunther. In September, park officials killed an aggressive grizzly bear near Heart Lake, in the southern part of Yellowstone, after repeated conflicts with humans beginning in 2015.
In a statement released after the bear was killed, officials said the incident served as a reminder that “a fed bear is a dead bear. Allowing bears to obtain human food even once often leads to them becoming aggressive toward people.”
Within Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, visitors are required to use wildlife-resistant garbage cans and dumpsters, as well as food storage lockers. Those entering either park are also told not to feed wildlife.
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, supplemental feeding can lead to a series of negative effects, which includes human dependency; health problems when human food is consumed that is not safe for the animal; nuisance behavior such as getting into garbage cans or approaching homes; or increased congregation in a single area, which may lead to the spread of diseases or increase the incidence of fighting and injury among animals.
“In essence,” said FWP spokeswoman Andrea Jones, “while it may seem well-intentioned, feeding wildlife is usually detrimental for an animal’s long-term well-being.”
Last summer and fall, FWP officials received reports of black bears in Big Sky entering occupied vacation rentals, as well as getting into garbage cans and vehicles. At least two of the bears were captured and euthanized, while three others were captured and relocated.
In an effort to minimize human-wildlife conflict, most homeowner associations in Big Sky have strict rules about feeding or attracting wildlife and have taken measures to reduce conflict. At Moonlight Basin, for example, there is a centralized trash collection site so trash cans are not spread throughout the development.
Ben Holst, executive director of community associations for Lone Mountain Land Company, manages Spanish Peaks and Moonlight Basin. “We’ve not had a problem with habituated bears in our developments,” he said, adding that while smaller mammals like fox and squirrel are around, they have not become a problem either. “The covenants at Spanish Peaks and Moonlight Basin are very clear about prohibition on feeding wildlife, or having wildlife attractants like salt licks, bird feeders or other foods.”
The Big Sky Owners Association, which manages more than 2,300 properties, has also worked with its members on wildlife education. On the BSOA website, homeowners can easily report a bear conflict through a partnership with Big Sky Community Organization’s Bear Smart program.
Since 1994, trends in human-bear conflicts that resulted in bear relocation or lethal removal have more than tripled. As a response to this increasing trend, BSCO initiated the Bear Smart program in 2013 as an educational program for people living in bear country. The Bear Smart initiative includes distribution of bear identification material and how to use bear spray, as well as a reporting system for bear sightings.
Big Sky residents and visitors should remain vigilant in avoiding human-wildlife conflicts throughout the winter, and should be bear-aware as well. Early in January a black bear was spotted roaming around the Yellowstone Club, and according to FWP bear biologist Kevin Frey, while it’s rather surprising to see a bear up and about in January, it’s not necessarily abnormal.
“Over the years, I have seen several bears on ski hills in the middle of winter,” he wrote in an email to EBS. “Odds are, the bears got disturbed by a change in the snow over the den, be it from a skier in the trees, the snow groomer or natural snow shift. This bear appeared to be a healthy adult, not a thin sub-adult awake to due hunger.”
For more information about the threats of feeding wildlife, visit fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/livingWithWildlife/feeding. To learn about BSCO’s Bear Smart campaign, visit bscomt.org/natural-resource-council/bear-smart.