It is that time of year when the winds whip the fall leaves, the first snow falls in the mountains and bears eagerly look for food. For bears, this period is called hyperphagia, and these fall months are the bear’s last chance to put on some fat (sometimes gaining as much as 3 pounds a day) before snuggling in to hibernate for the next four to six months. If the females do not have enough body fat at the start of their hibernation, they will not give birth to cubs during the winter. This need for food drives bears to search high and low for any available food. And, unfortunately, that means that this time of year is the busiest for conflicts between bears and people.
From apple trees to garbage to backyard chickens, bears find it all. By using their incredible sense of smell, bears can wind up tracking down food to places they shouldn’t be – like backyards, orchards and porches. This spells trouble for both bears and people, which is why Defenders works hard to prevent potential conflicts from occurring by keeping bears away from these temping treats! To do this, we use tools like bear-resistant garbage containers and bear-resistant electric fences to keep property protected and deter bears from getting into trouble. In 2014, Defenders has worked with landowners through our electric fence incentive program to complete 42 electric fence projects (with another 20 projects close to being completed), throughout our project area in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Since 2010, this program has helped landowners put fencing around more than100 sites – everything from fruit trees to chicken coops. Each year, we get more and more positive testimony from landowners that have had fences installed and as this program grows in popularity, we plan to do more projects each year.
In addition to our successful fencing program, we routinely work with state, federal and tribal agencies and local communities to implement bear-resistant garbage programs. Bears are highly attracted to garbage. Once they find the garbage, they become hooked on this easy source of food and come back repeatedly — staying in neighborhoods and causing concern for residents. Bears living in urban/wildland fringe habitat are more at risk of becoming food conditioned and as a result may be killed. Either wildlife agencies remove the bear because it has become a safety concern, or bears are hit by cars as they move through these urban areas. This summer, Defenders worked with a group of partners to purchase 50 bear-resistant trash cans for placement at local residences in a busy recreational community in northwest Montana. This area is frequented by both black bears and grizzly bears, so this effort will create a safer environment for both bears and people.
Another large part of our bear coexistence program is working one-on-one with landowners and residents. We discuss any conflicts that have occurred and then work with them on ways to address their concerns while also keeping grizzly bears alive. Grizzly bears need large blocks of habitat in order to raise their young and gather food. The fact is, between those large blocks of land are a growing number of people and human development. Finding ways for people and grizzly bears to live on the same landscape is a reality we face. Without human tolerance for grizzly bears, their future would look very grim indeed. The future looks brighter for grizzly bears when conflicts are minimized and tolerance outweighs myth and misunderstanding. In all honesty, the best way to truly “save” grizzly bears is by finding and implementing tools and techniques that help people coexist safely with grizzly bears on the landscape. Wildlife coexistence is a win-win for both property owners and wildlife: owners protect their property using sustainable nonlethal tools, and we keep these imperiled bears alive. Defenders is dedicated to working with landowners to ensure that grizzly bears are here to stay, grow and recover.
Erin Edge is the Rockies & Plains Representative at Defenders of Wildlife