The weather has been, well, bearable lately, and that means male grizzlies will be leaving hibernation and seeking some of their first meals of the new year.
That has prompted wildlife management officials to warn people living in bear country to take precautions to ensure that bruins won't be running into trouble with their human neighbors.
"Cleaning up potential food attractants around residences and ranches very early in the spring is the single most important step in spring ... to prevent encounters and possible conflicts with bears," Jamie Jonkel, state Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear management specialist in Missoula, said in a statement.
Livestock carcasses, frozen and thawing garbage stored in trailers for the winter, grain and feed, and pet food left outdoors are also strong attractants. Early season campers and spring hunters also need to store food out of a bear's reach at their campsites.
"Once bears start getting into trouble around humans, chances are the outcome will not be good for the bear," said Gregg Losinski, of the Idaho Department of Fish. "It is far better to avoid conflicts from the beginning, rather than hoping to fix them after they start. While conflicts can arise in the woods, most of the problems relating to bears occur where people live near bears, but fail to take the necessary precautions with things like garbage, bird feeders, barbecue grills and pet food."
Tim Manley, a FWP Region 1 grizzly bear management specialist, urges residents in northwestern Montana to have their yards cleaned up by April 1, no fooling.
"The earlier in April residents clean up around their homes and secure food attractants, the better results they will have," he said. "A deep mountain snowpack or early spring snowfall can push hungry bears coming out of hibernation into the valley bottoms in search of nourishment."
Last year, Manley said, there were 32 grizzly bears captured 47 times for management reasons in northwest Montana between May 16 and Nov. 21, almost double the average grizzly bear capture rate of 17 a year.
Many of the conflicts involved bears getting into chicken coops. More people are keeping chickens, and unsecured chickens attract coyotes, raccoons, skunks, domestic dogs, coyotes and bobcats, as well as bears. FWP bear managers urge anyone raising poultry in Western Montana to use electric fencing around the chicken pen and coop.
"This year I am also trying to organize a volunteer fruit-picking group that would be willing to assist homeowners who are unable to pick their own fruit," said Kim Annis, an FWP grizzly bear specialist in Libby. "Fruit trees are another bear attractant and a major source of conflict in this area."
Rocky Mountain Front
In contrast to northwestern Montana, incidents of grizzly bear problems along the Rocky Mountain Front have decreased by about 30 percent from 1986 to 2005.
"The main change is that since 2005, black bear conflicts have remained low and relatively stable, as grizzly bear incidents have steadily increased to about 25 to 30 conflicts a year," said Mike Madel, FWP grizzly bear specialist in Choteau.
Madel estimates that the 900-plus grizzly bears in the ecosystem are increasing at a rate of about 3 to 4 percent a year. As a result, he expects bear conflicts to arise in new areas as bears disperse eastward along the Marias, Teton and Sun River drainages.
The decline in bear/human conflicts is a result of FWP's conflict prevention activities, Madel said. The most effective methods have been electric fence systems to protect bee yards and sheep bedding grounds; randomly redistributing livestock carcasses each spring; bear-resistant bins in communities and on ranches; and educational programs in schools and communities.
"We have good working relationships with the big ranches and small communities in this area," Madel said. "Now, as grizzly bears expand further and recolonize more of their traditional habitat, we need to connect with new communities including Shelby, Simms and Fort Benton."
One large-scale conflict prevention project is a partnership agreement with the Miller Colony, located north of Choteau, for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to cost-share and assist the colony in building a permanent electric fence around an expansive sheep pasture.
"Sheep depredations have increased during recent years in this area and this project will help minimize future conflicts with bears and wolves," Madel said. "Plans are for the Miller Colony to complete the fence project this coming summer. It is the largest permanent electric fence, nearly three square miles, built in Montana."
In early spring, Kevin Frey, FWP bear specialist in Bozeman, is especially concerned about potential bear conflicts with the state's enthusiastic shed-antler hunters.
Frey urges shed-antler hunters to be alert for bears that might scavenge carcasses found on wildlife management areas and other public lands this time of year.
"During 2011, there were fewer grizzly and black bear conflicts overall than in 2010, but backcountry encounters with grizzly bears were the highest on record," Frey said.
Frey urges outdoor enthusiasts to take steps to minimize surprise encounters with bears by staying alert, making noise while hiking and traveling with others.
"These days, bear spray also needs to be a routine part of our overall outdoor garb when we head out to recreate in bear country," Frey said.
"With early spring temperatures and less snow, emerging bears may quickly move to lower elevations this year, looking for areas of early green-up," Frey said.
Jonkel said he has seen a decrease in grizzly bear conflicts in Western Montana since the late 1990s, largely due to proactive management and various watershed working groups and local communities that have done public education and reduced bear attractants in their areas.
While a reduction in grizzly conflicts in the Blackfoot Valley is good news, Jonkel expects new conflicts where grizzly bears are recolonizing in traditional grizzly habitat to the south.
"As grizzlies show up in the Little Blackfoot Valley and upper reaches of the Clark Fork River Basin, they will be tempted to go where black bear, raccoons and domestic dogs are already getting into garbage today," he said.