SEELEY LAKE — Most bears are good neighbors until people leave food lying around. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is hoping residents in Missoula County will do their part to be better neighbors to bears.
FWP Region 2 supervisor Randy Arnold told Missoula County commissioners that people need to do more to avoid conflict with bears in residential areas, particularly in the Seeley Lake area. The question is how to get residents to comply.
Missoula has bear buffer zones and sanitation ordinances, and every drainage around Missoula has signs alerting people to the presence of bears. More effort is now being focused in the Bitterroot Valley and outlying communities.
“It’s almost always related to human sanitation, whether it’s trash cans and feed and chickens and livestock and all those things that go into reducing conflict with bears,” Arnold said. “We still have tons of conflict. It’s really easy to point to that and say, ‘Well that’s where we’re going to have problems with grizzly bears when they come too.’”
Missoula still has bear issues, especially in Grant Creek, O’Brien Creek, Deep Creek and the Rattlesnake – but they’re nothing like what’s been happening in the Swan Valley.
FWP has had to deal with bears around Seeley Lake for a long time, but in the past few years the conflict started to increase. FWP worked with the U.S. Forest Service to clean up the state and federal campgrounds to improve food storage policy and equipment. But problems still exist because of other factors.
“We’re seeing some concerns around Seeley Lake with feeding wildlife and a lack of attention to sanitation, a lack of available bear proof dumpsters and still see fairly significant number of conflicts with both black bears and grizzly bears,” Arnold said. “Where you have black bear conflict, we really have an eye toward grizzly bear conflict.”
The Missoula Bear Facebook page has been reporting difficulties with bears around Seeley Lake for weeks, saying multiple black bears are getting into unsecured garbage and pulling down bird feeders. The most recent post on July 17 pleaded with people to secure their garbage after FWP had to kill a black bear that had become highly food conditioned.
A July 7 post said a grizzly bear had gotten into a large, non-functioning bear-resistant dumpster at a privately owned campground in the Seeley area. After FWP worked with the owners to fix the dumpster, the bear returned but left after he couldn’t get any garbage. Another grizzly bear might have been responsible for getting into an outside freezer at a residence on Placid Lake.
Quinn Carver started getting concerned shortly after he took over as the Seeley Lake District Ranger in February 2019. After working on Bear Aware programs in other parts of the state, including the Libby area, Carver saw things were headed in the wrong direction and contacted FWP and the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office to improve bear education and response.
The three agencies are developing a stronger community effort.
“We’re still a long way from knowing exactly what that would look like,” Arnold said. “But just know that, as the governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council begins to get its preliminary recommendations out, conflict reduction in these communities, improving sanitation, is a big piece of it. As is having staff available, because having all the education programs in the world doesn’t seem to replace the benefit of having somebody like Jamie Jonkel.”
Arnold said the best thing would be to have a dedicated conflict specialist in Seeley Lake and maybe FWP, the Forest Service and the county could combine resources to achieve that. In the meantime, Jonkel has worked with Erin Edge of Defenders of Wildlife to apply for a grant from the USFS Resource Advisory Committee for conflict reduction in the Seeley area.
Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier asked if the county could create some sort of regulation to help with conflict reduction. It might be something similar to the city of Missoula’s ban on feeding wildlife, but Strohmaier didn’t know how much authority the county has.
“But maybe there’s more to be done on the education front before we have the heavy hammer of regulatory requirements,” Strohmaier said.
Arnold thanked Strohmaier for the offer, saying it was too early to tell what was needed. Ultimately, it will probably require a combination of different tools.
“But there are those times when you have particularly thorny issues or spots that are very difficult to deal with,” Arnold said. “Unfortunately, some of those incidents lead to us removing black bears that have become food-conditioned or human habituated. So I’m well aware that regulations may end up being one of those pieces.”
When bears aren’t drawn in by garbage or birdseed, they tend to stay out of sight, out of mind. Or at least they just visit briefly and go on their way. Arnold credited the people who know how to be bear aware by cleaning up their fruit trees, keeping the streets clean and putting their garbage out only on the day of pickup instead of leaving it out.
“It’s really remarkable how many bears we have living in the community that don’t cause any problems,” Arnold said. “It’s pretty easy to point to the negative and the problems we do have. But it’s remarkable the number of bears that stay out of trouble.”