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Public invited to weigh in on Big Sky’s bear issues



By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Associate Editor

BIG SKY – On April 28, Big Sky’s Bear Stewardship Council will host a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the Big Sky Water and Sewer District.

The meeting will be an opportunity for the community to weigh in on a proposed language change to the zoning regulation requiring wildlife-resistant garbage storage, and learn what the Bear Smart program has planned for the next few months.

“This summer we feel like we can implement steps to manage bear/human conflicts in Big Sky,” said Kris Inman, Community Partnerships Representative for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Less than 20 percent of curbside [garbage] pick ups are bear-resistant.”

Bears are attracted to unsecured garbage, bird feeders, pet food and compost piles, which can lead to conflicts with humans and potential property damage, Inman said.

The Gallatin Canyon/Big Sky Planning and Zoning Commission on April 10 passed a Resolution of Intent with a vote of 4-2 to amend the Sec. 29.3 Animal-proof Refuse Requirement.

The ordinance currently reads: “All refuse shall be stored in an animal-proof container or be made unavailable to all domestic and wild animals.” This means homeowners are required to store their refuse containers in a garage or other closed space and only put them out on the day of collection, but does not require using a bear-proof container.

“‘Unavailable’ is very broad,” Inman said. “This makes it more specific, and won’t allow non-bear-resistant containers to be used.”

Amending the resolution would be a big step in helping the community reduce bear conflicts, she added, and would take the responsibility for having bear-proof requirements off homeowners associations and onto the county.

“We feel good about it because it’s not a high cost to homeowners,” Inman said. “[It would] reduce property damage and prevent bears from being removed or killed. We didn’t want to work on a resolution change without being sure we weren’t asking for a huge burden on the community.”

Republic Services is the sole refuse collector in the Big Sky area and isn’t likely to make the shift to bear-resistant containers without an ordinance in place and an assurance the cans will be used. It has close to 900 customers in Big Sky and Gallatin Canyon, and each bear-resistant can cost roughly $300 apiece.

Homeowners would be billed approximately $6 more per month, which includes the cost of the can as well as monthly service, maintenance and repairs, Inman said.

The Resolution of Intent authorizes Gallatin County Planning and Zoning staff to work with Big Sky’s Bear Smart Council, but there is no timeline to modify the language in the ordinance, according to Gallatin County Planning Director Sean O’Callaghan.

“My office is concerned about a number of other amendments [to zoning regulations in Big Sky],” O’Callaghan said. “What priority is this? It’s still uncertain.”

The Big Sky Zoning Advisory Committee – made up of five property owners in the Big Sky Zoning District – hasn’t weighed in on where this fits with the more than 12 other amendments they’ve requested, O’Callaghan said.

Some of the area homeowners associations have been working toward implementing regulations before a change to the ordinance is passed. The Spanish Peaks Owners Association in January approved a resolution to require all residents in the association to have bear-resistant containers by May 1.

About 30 of the approximately 70 residences with curbside service in the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club currently use bear-resistant containers, according to Jon Olsen, a civil engineer employed at Spanish Peaks. “It’s been received fairly well, with very little resistance from homeowners.”

“There are a number of individuals and homeowner associations that are really taking the lead in reducing garbage attractants for bears,” Inman said. “But we need a consistent strategy to reduce attractants across Big Sky. A stronger ordinance is a way to get there.”

The April 28 meeting will also be a chance for the community to learn about Bear Smart Big Sky’s efforts to date.

The Forest Service received $3,000 this winter from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee Information and Education Grant Program to help fund the regional Bear Steward for six months. Last year’s budget was only sufficient for the steward, Katrina Talbot, to work for a month in West Yellowstone, but now Big Sky will be included in her territory.

Talbot will do community outreach, bear-spray trainings, bring an interactive bear trailer to area events, and train organizations to keep their staff safe in bear country.

“We’ve put in proposals for local grants in Big Sky,” Inman said. “The Forest Service has put up some funds [as well, and] sees a real need in Big Sky.”

Bear Smart Big Sky has also received some funding from Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, while Big Sky Community Corp. – the nonprofit that oversees the Bear Smart initiative – has $9,000 in its Resort Tax application earmarked for the program.

“This is a pilot year to see if [the regional steward] meets our needs,” Inman said. “Or do we need a Big Sky-only-based steward?”

Contact BSCC Executive Director Jessie Wiese at (406) 993-2112 for more information.

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