This fall in Western Montana, drought and warm temperatures limited what natural foods are available to bears during a critical time – hyperphagia. That is the technical name for the period of time when bears try and put on as many calories as possible before going into their winter dens. When natural foods like huckleberry, chokecherry and hawthorn dry up, bears start looking for something else to eat. During lean years, this means that bears start searching in more urban areas for a tasty morsel, which can lead to conflicts with humans. Once a bear starts wandering into a neighborhood for easy food like apples, it is not hard for them to find other “attractants” like backyard chickens, garbage and birdfeeders. Bears learn quickly and remember where they found food, so they come back, sometimes every day, to the same location to feed.
This is risky business for bears. Here in Montana, the news has been full of stories this year of both black and grizzly bears being captured and relocated, or even killed, because they came into conflict with people. So what can we do to prevent bears from getting into trouble? We’ve been working for over a decade to find answers to just that question, and what we’ve found is that with the right methods and tools, these conflicts are often preventable. Bear-resistant trash cans, food lockers, dumpsters and other tools can make the difference between a bear wandering into a neighborhood and being captured or killed, and a bear passing by on its way to more safely-obtained natural food. But what exactly makes a container bear-resistant? And how do you know for sure that it IS bear-resistant before sending it out into the field and working with a community to put it in place?
Having knowledge about products that work is vital to our efforts to reduce conflicts with bears in our communities. Thankfully, there are people that have spent a lot of time finding out what works and what doesn’t. In fact, some products are even certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee as bear-resistant (we don’t call anything bear-proof because sometimes bears are just uniquely ingenious). The majority of these products are tested at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. Patti Sowka with the Living with Wildlife Foundation and the IUCN Bear Specialist Group Human Bear Conflict Expert Team has spent many years working on getting this kind of important information to communities, agencies, and organizations like ours so that we can all help bears and humans to better coexist on the landscape. Defenders caught up with Patti to ask her about her work.
How did you start getting involved in bear work, especially product testing?
I met renowned bear researcher, Dr. Charles Jonkel and his son Jamie, a bear management specialist with Region 2 of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Their passion and dedication to bears were contagious, and my interest in bears grew like wildfire. Jamie needed help organizing and reviewing information from a wide variety of sources about how people could secure things that they had around their homes that might attract bears. I offered to help, and soon the Living with Predators Resource Guides were born.
We also realized that there wasn’t a way to test and evaluate bear-resistant garbage cans and dumpsters. Manufacturers were making claims about the effectiveness of their products without any proof to back up those claims. Consumers were purchasing ineffective products and getting discouraged when the products didn’t work. So Jamie and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) recruited my help to revise the program to include testing of garbage containers and other products that weren’t currently being tested.
Can you walk us through the process of testing and getting a product certified as “bear-resistant?”
Manufacturers submit their product along with a product submission form and the required testing fee to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center (GWDC) in West Yellowstone. “Before” photos are taken, and the product is baited with foods that are interesting and enticing to the captive grizzly bears that will be testing it. The product is then placed into the bear habitat, and between 1 and 5 grizzlies are given an opportunity to interact with it.
The test is videotaped and documented with a data sheet. If, after 60 minutes of biting, licking, rolling, pushing on, clawing and otherwise trying to get into the container the bears have been unable to break into it to get the yummy food inside, the container “passes.” If a product doesn’t work properly, or has gaps or holes larger than a certain size prior to that 60 minute mark, the product “fails.”
Information for products that meet the “pass” criteria are forwarded to a designated person (currently Scott Jackson, Large Carnivore Program Lead with the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula, MT) and a unique IGBC certification number and an official approval letter are issued. The product is then added to the list of IGBC-approved products on the IGBC web site.
How do you feel that certified bear-resistant products help bears and people?
Certified bear-resistant containers have provided consumers with higher-quality products to choose from at a lower price, and have reduced the amount of money spent on ineffective products. This makes the public more willing to purchase and use bear-resistant products, since many people are having a positive experience with them. But the most important impact the products have had is on bears. Fewer bears are learning to associate garbage with an easy meal, which means fewer garbage-related conflicts as a result. In turn, this leads to fewer bear deaths, and makes our neighborhoods and campgrounds safer for people.
What are the biggest challenges you continue to see with bears and people living in close proximity to one another?
I still see reluctance from many people living in bear country or in urban interface areas to make small changes in their daily living habitats that would prevent conflicts with bears. This includes taking birdfeeders down while bears are active, not putting garbage cans out the night before pick-up, replacing fruit-bearing trees with other types of trees or even just cleaning up fallen apples and other fruit BEFORE it attracts bears, and putting up electric fencing around chicken and livestock pens.
What progress have you seen since you started in this field?
Bear-resistant products have improved greatly and there are many more to choose from now. I also see a greater willingness, in general, to use bear-resistant products and many communities are now actually requiring them.
Next week, we’ll have the story of Patti’s first encounter with a grizzly, which inspired her to take on the work she does today. Defenders is proud to work with programs like that of the Living with Wildlife Foundation to put real solutions on the ground in bear country to help bears and humans share the landscape.