By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor
BIG SKY – A Big Sky man shot and killed an adult male grizzly bear near the Ousel Falls Trailhead on May 25. A necropsy conducted on the bear at the state wildlife laboratory in Bozeman affirmed the animal was shot, said Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokeswoman Andrea Jones.
Agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and FWP law enforcement are still investigating the incident have declined to comment on the details. Because grizzly bears are listed as threatened on the endangered species list, incidents involving unnatural death require joint investigation by federal and state authorities.
In most cases, this process involves determining whether the incident was a case of self-defense, Jones said.
“The overall take-home message in regards to the grizzly bear killed last Friday is [that] people need to be aware that they live in an area that has numerous black and grizzly bears,” said FWP bear biologist Kevin Frey. “Unnatural food attractants that are unsecured lure bears close to people.”
“It has been predominantly black bears in Big Sky, but it could just as easily be a grizzly bear, which when encountered can become more complicated or cause a higher level of concern.”
The fact that this incident happened so close to the busiest trailhead in Gallatin County has left many Big Sky residents fascinated and concerned.
Bear-human conflicts happen several times a year in Big Sky. Because of its mountainous location and surrounding habitat, bears will always be here.
During the construction boom, human activity scared the animals away, but as that’s slowed down, Frey says it’s become almost a safe haven for bears.
“There’s very little management or control in [Big Sky]. It’s almost got a false population,” he said, meaning the bear population is high because of the food available. Dandelions and red clover are favorite summer foods for bears, and they’re common around Big Sky’s lawns and roadways.
Then there’s the trash and other attractants left out by humans.
“Bears are no different than me. If you want to cook supper, I’ll come over,” Frey said. “If there’s an easy meal to be had—unsecured garbage, pet food, bird seed—bears have an incredible sense of smell and they’ll find that stuff.”
And when people leave their windows open and head out for the day, bears can sense that no one’s home, Frey says.
“We’ve definitely had an increase in the number of bears pulling windows open and crawling in houses. That can lead to bears crawling into a house when someone’s home.”
That’s when Frey, a game warden or another law enforcement officer is often called to the scene.
“We try to help secure the attractants, and haze bears to give them a negative reward for hanging around people or trying to get in garbage. If a bear is breaking into cars or houses we try to figure out which one it is and capture that bear.”
Ultimately, habituated bears must be relocated, or in extreme cases, euthanized.
“We have to decide what’s best for the bear and the public,” Frey said.
Efforts in the Big Sky area to minimize bear-human conflicts have been beneficial.
“People are becoming more aware and conscious, but there’s that constant turnover of new residences or vacationers who don’t understand,” Frey said. “People slip up or don’t take it seriously, and bears get a reward. A few people have purposely put out food for bears which has caused a problem.”
As the regional black and grizzly bear population grows, sightings in the Big Sky area are increasing as well. That, Frey says, makes it imperative to increase efforts to secure attractants that lure bears close to people.
Food-conditioned and habituated bears create human safety concerns, and as with the shooting near Ousel Falls, bear-human conflicts are also increasing around Big Sky.
One effort by the Big Sky Owners Association made notable differences last year. Working with Allied Waste, a test neighborhood on Chief Joseph Trail used bear proof trashcans and saw a major decrease in incidences. The locking cans cost residents $11 more each month. The pilot project was a reaction to a bear-trash incident the previous year.
Allied Waste currently has at least 100 bear proof trashcans in Big Sky. The locking cans require more maintenance, labor and cost, but it’s worth it, said Phil Ideson, Allied Waste’s Big Sky operations manager. “If the customers want them, then we’ll put them out,” he said.
Since 2008, Red Lodge has had a citywide mandate for residents to use bear resistant canisters. The results have been good and the investment was worth it, said Red Lodge community development director Forrest Sanderson.
“We made that choice as a community that we don’t need trouble with our wildlife neighbors.”
The resorts in Big Sky have also made efforts to decrease bear-human interaction. Moonlight Basin and the Yellowstone Club have both added central waste transfer stations, isolating potential problems to one area. Moonlight also has a covenant against birdfeeders and works to educate its homeowners.
“We have to be diligent, making sure everyone is being smart with food and trash storage,” said Moonlight employee Kevin Germain.
Large bear resistant containers in and around the Meadow Village have helped diminish what were previously chronic bear problems.
Every effort counts, Frey said. “If a bear doesn’t find that reward in one area, hopefully it won’t look for it in the next. It’s a slow process but it’s a cumulative affect.”
Through a Bear Aware program started last year, the Big Sky Natural Resource Council has brought together players from all facets of Big Sky to find creative solutions to addressing the bear issues facing the community. The group identified bear education and awareness as a priority.
The BSNRC has applied for several grants, and once funding is secured, the group will do a bear hazard assessment for Big Sky and then form a committee’ to implement solutions.
It plans to emulate a successful community program started by the British Columbia Ministry of Water, Land and Air protection called “Get Bear Smart.” The program is used widely throughout Canada and also in cities around the U.S.
Follow explorebigsky.com for updates about the grizzly bear shooting.
Big Sky Natural Resource Council
Get Bear Smart Society
What to do if you see a bear
The presence of bears in Big Sky should be accepted as normal, said FWP bear biologist Kevin Frey.
Residents should expect to see the animals grazing on their lawns or just passing through. But if they start snooping, hanging around, or getting bold or brazen, he suggests making noise to scare the animal away. Problem bears should be reported, Frey said.
If you’re out in the woods and have a close encounter with a bear, it’s best to stop and stand your ground.
“If you turn around and run away, that can trigger a secondary response in wildlife, especially bears. Slowly try to back up. If it’s agitated, huffing and puffing, hold your ground.”
In a surprise encounter, black bears generally won’t be that defensive or aggressive—unless it’s a mother with cubs.
A bear that’s following you is different, Frey said. “That bear is in a predatory mode. At that point you want to be aggressive and try to intimidate the animal. Holler, throw rocks or sticks.”
If you have a surprise encounter with a grizzly, “at that point the bear is trying to decide what to do,” Frey said. “If you don’t do anything to trigger another reaction, a lot of times they’ll drift off and give you the ground. If you start yelling and getting ornery, it might charge you. It’s kind of up to the bear what’s going to happen.”
Bears travel on trails, too, and 99 percent of them run away before we even see them, Frey said. The best thing is prevention, and traveling in groups of two or more.
“Be alert, make noise, carry bear spray and know how to use it. Look for tracks, torn up logs, scat—all signs a bear is in the area.”