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When Rand Herzberg and his wife pulled into Upper Cow Coulee campground on the Smith River last year, they found a note taped to the fire ring.

The previous campers had left a warning that a black bear had raided their camp the night before. With much of their gear already unloaded, the Herzbergs decided to stay despite the warning. After all, campsites along the popular Smith River are at a premium.

But as Herzberg, a retired Red Lodge forest ranger, went about setting up camp, he heard his wife yelling at a bear. Herzberg joined her, banging pots and yelling to try and shoo the bear away. Nothing was working.

“The bear just did not want to leave,” Herzberg recalled. “He’d wander off and then come back. Finally the bear charged me, and I sprayed it with pepper spray.”

Temporarily discouraged, the young male bear, which weighed about 65 pounds, climbed a tree. Eventually it climbed down and charged a second time. Herzberg sprayed it again. Once more the bear retreated, but not very far away, so the couple decided to pack up and row to the next campground downstream.

New rules

Next year all Smith River rafters, canoeists and kayakers will have to have a way to shield their food from nosey black bears like the one the Herzbergs encountered. Following an advisory council’s approval, the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board authorized new regulations that will require either bear-proof coolers or portable electric fences around all coolers along the 60-mile river corridor that’s managed as a state park. Kayakers and canoeists with less food will be allowed to hang their food from trees.

“I’m disappointed it wasn’t enacted this year,” Herzberg said.

In the last two years, Fish, Wildlife and Parks has had to kill eight bears along the state’s only permitted river after they became habituated to human food. That prompted the discussion about building bear-proof boxes to place at campgrounds, which the Forest Service opposed, and eventually led to the new regulations. It was decided this year would be a chance to educate floaters about the changes that were coming.

Meeting the new requirements won’t be cheap. Bear-proof coolers start at $300 and can climb to $1,400 for the largest models. Rafters typically carry more than one cooler. Portable electric fences are priced at around $270 but can be spread out to surround several coolers, are easy to set up and take up little additional space.

“Electric fences are the answer in my book,” Herzberg said. “They are easy to set up and effective.”

“I believe that will be a big part of the solution of getting the situation cleaned up,” he added. “Hopefully, somebody will rent them out. It’s 10 times easier than hanging your food, and at some campsites there’s no place to hang anything.”

Boater verdict

It seems like bear spray would be deterrent enough. Yet the young bear that Herzberg sprayed twice last year ended up following the couple downstream to their new campground, but only after chasing another group out of a nearby site, as well.

Crowded together with about 30 other campers that included the bear refugees, at about 3 a.m. Herzberg heard a commotion. Grabbing his bear spray he climbed out of his tent to find the same bear in his raft on top of his cooler trying to open it. Luckily, it was a bear-proof cooler.

Acting aggressively again – popping its jaws and shaking its head – Herzberg sprayed the bear twice more when it charged. He was now using a second can of bear spray.

“It was not a good situation,” he said.

Herzberg decided to wake up the other campers to make them aware of the situation. The group made a collective decision to shoot the bear, since leaving camp and the bear would just foist the problem upon the next campers. One of the boaters had a pistol and shot the animal. In the morning, Herzberg used a satellite phone to alert FWP about the incident, and one of the rafters hauled the bear down to a group of houses near a road where FWP could pick it up.

“It was a very unpleasant experience,” he said.

Frequent floater

So it’s no wonder Herzberg is a fan of the new regulations. As a regular user of the Smith River, it wasn’t the first time he’d encountered a bear habituated to human food. In 2013 he and his wife had a bear swim out toward their raft after they attempted to pull to shore. Realizing he couldn’t catch them by swimming, the bear climbed ashore and trotted down the bank shadowing the rafters for about 100 yards.

The same year, another bear came into their camp at Trout Creek and wouldn’t leave. So they packed up and floated downstream.

“I just feel that really has to stop,” Herzberg said. “And I think they’re on the right track to getting it fixed.”

Since he retired about 12 years ago, Herzberg makes as many trips down the Smith River as possible each year, sometimes piggy-backing on friends’ permits, other times acquiring permits on short notice when floaters cancel.

“I’m really enthralled with that river,” he said. “I really enjoy it.”

Even so, he’ll enjoy it a lot more when there’s less worry about bears becoming habituated to human food and raiding campsites.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.