MISSOULA - Calls for the city and county to update their policies to make Missoula a Bear Smart community are growing louder, including a petition on Change.org and support from several City Council members.
The program, which requires a city to earn the designation based upon policies rooted in education and enforcement, has grown in popularity among communities in the wildland-urban interface.
Whitefish and Virginia City are among those in Montana currently seeking the Bear Smart designation, and many want Missoula to join the list.
“It seems like the two big keys to a successful program are education and enforcement,” Brett Haverstick told the Missoula City Council on Monday night. “I’d encourage the City Council to seek funding sources for the associated costs and enforcement of the program.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in October confirmed that a grizzly sow and two cubs had taken up residence in the North Hills of Missoula. A month later, the resident bear was reportedly developing bad habits, largely due to poor human practices.
That puts wildlife managers and the bears in a bad situation, often leading to the removal of the bear, or lethal outcomes that lead to the animal’s death.
“I’m worried about her. She’s already developed some habits that are not acceptable, and I came quite close to having to destroy her,” Jamie Jonkel, a wildlife management specialist, said of the resident grizzly last November.
While grizzly bears slowly reclaim their native habitat around Missoula, black bears are a common sight in parts of the city, particularly in the Rattlesnake, Pattee Canyon and the South Hills. But teaching humans to coexist with wildlife remains a challenge, and it’s one of the driving factors behind the Bear Smart program.
“We could use this opportunity to partner with the University of Montana and public schools to take a proactive approach to save the lives of as many bears as we can,” Haverstick said. “We need to clean up our act a little bit. It would be better for the bears and all of our safety.”
Bear Smart advocates in Missoula point to a number of city ordinances that could be improved to better protect resident bears and other wildlife. That includes one ordinance that calls for the “special management of garbage in specific areas within the City of Missoula where there is a conflict with bears.”
The ordinance requires the proper disposal of garbage and food waste in parts of the city, along with bear-resistant containers and other preventative measures. The ordinance, however, is rarely enforced – another issue Bear Smart advocates are pushing for.
“Bear Smart communities are popping up all over the Western United States and Canada as we grapple with the reality of human encroachment on wild places,” the petition on Change.org reads. “In Missoula, we feel the work to become Bear Smart is well past due. Many bears have been killed and yet problems persist.”
The Bear Smart program includes ways to reduce human-induced conflicts with wildlife, including management plans, hazard assessments, conflict policies and managing attractants.
It also includes a “bear’s bill of rights,” which suggests that a bear has the right to expect that residents in bear country will be educated and willing to accommodate the needs of bears into their lifestyle and daily habits.
“Those conversations are ongoing,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said of becoming an official Bear Smart community.
Bear Smart advocates have noted Missoula’s population growth, along with that of other cities in western Montana. That growth is forcing bears to exist in smaller regions, and it cuts off migration routes needed to maintain a dynamic gene pool.
Those behind the Change.org petition believe that “it’s fair to expect all people living in bear country to know the rules of living here, peacefully with wildlife.” Some members of City Council agree.
“It’s really urgent that we try to take action on that, or at least start looking more into it,” said council member Daniel Carlino.