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Tribal officials deal with hungry bears

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POLSON — It’s calorie-loading season for bears, and a hungry one can become dangerous as it attempts to stuff its belly before winter.

Last week two mature black bears were put down by tribal law enforcement outside Finley Point Grill after repeatedly getting into the trash near parked cars, with patrons inside the restaurant. “People couldn’t go to and from their vehicles,” Tribal Police Chief Craig Couture said. “Officers chased the animals off, but they kept coming right back to the area.”

The situation was handled by the book, Couture said, and handled well. “When there’s human bear confrontations with a person, we err on the side of caution the whole time, but with problem bears, we deal with it,” Couture said. “We shot the first bear, and the others ran, but it still returned shortly after, so we had to shoot another one.”

Because hunting is closed to non-tribal members on the Flathead Indian Reservation and only a few tribal members hunt black bears, the local bear population is thriving. Within the reservation boundaries, bears often live to old age before dying due to a lack of predators and abundant natural habitat and food, such a berries, Couture said.

But once the huckleberries are gone and fall sets in, the bears seek food within populated areas, even within the city limits of Polson, causing concern for humans and bears.

When possible, bear traps are set after human encounters occur, but bears are found in only one third of every trap set, according to Pablo “Chib” Espinoza, Chief of CSKT’s Fish and Game program. “Some are smart, and won’t go in,” he said. When they do catch a bear, they relocate it to a site away from people, but they can only transport and release the bear within the reservation boundaries.

“The reservation is not that big, so a bear can come back,” Espinoza said.

Espinoza explained that once a bear is trapped, it can cause the death of the bear by either being killed by another territorial bear where the trapped bear is released, or it can return to being a problem and need to be destroyed.

“We don’t like to do that at all,” Espinoza said. “We are against trapping and shooting, but sometimes it’s necessary.”

Although exact figures won’t be available until later this year, it appears more bear sightings and trap requests have been reported this fall than in previous years, Espinoza noted.

Espinoza said people have to realize that bears are always around. They just don’t notice until they dump over their trash.

The solution is for residents not to have food and other bear attractants out where bears can become a danger to the public, and to protect chicken coops with electric fencing.

Residents can purchase a bear-proof “Kodiak” dumpster. Tribal biologist George Barsch can direct residents where to do that and help set it up, Espinoza said.

“It might get knocked over, but bears don’t get a reward, and you don’t have to pick up garbage,” Espinoza said, adding that bears have not bothered his garbage once he got the dumpster.

Usually it’s the grizzly bears that tear apart residential chicken coops, according to Espinoza, who said Tribal Wildlife Biologist Stacy Courville can offer information about a program that helps residents get funding to set up electric fencing around their coops. For more information, call Courville at 406- 883-2888.

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