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Experts share bear confrontation information

ARLEE – An angry grizzly bear lowers its head and starts charging in your direction - what should you do? 

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes paired up with the nonprofit conservation group People and Carnivores during an informational meeting Aug. 28 at the Arlee Community Center to help minimize the conflicts between bears and humans.

Bryce Andrews, the northern field director for People and Carnivores, lives in Arlee. He said it’s important for people to understand a few details about bears to limit encounters. He introduced CSKT Wildlife Biologist Stacy Courville to a crowd of about 50 people.

Courville talked about bear activity on the Flathead Indian Reservation, underscoring the fact that humans and bears live in close proximity. 

“Since 2010, we have captured and handled 32 grizzly bears, 47 times, for deportation involving small livestock like chickens, goats, pigs and calves,” he said. “Seventeen of those bears have been removed from the population and put in zoos or euthanized.”

Bears are also finding food in cornfields. The bears knock down a section of the crop, husk it, and eat it. He said bears in the Mission Valley are eating a lot of corn and it isn’t yet clear how that will impact them long term. “We had 20 percent of one farmers crop harvested by bears,” he said.

Courville said he went out to help put up a “really hot” electric fence around a tall cornfield last year and ended up finding nine bears inside the fence. The area was monitored for a few weeks and work was done to make sure the bears left the field. “We watched a sow and three cubs come out and a huge adult male,” he said.

Bears and cars are another problem. Six bears were killed on U.S. Highway 93 on the reservation this year, Courville said. A female wearing a radio collar was killed in late July along with her two cubs. Her third cub had to be euthanized. The bear’s collar indicated that she had crossed the highway 31 times since 2015. 

Steve Primm, conservation director, developed People and Carnivores in 2011 with the goal of reconnecting and restoring carnivore populations in the Northern Rockies by working with people to prevent human-carnivore conflicts. He looked at CSKT’s map of bear activity on the reservation, which was recorded from collared bears, and he said the proximity between people and bears living on the reservation is unique. 

Primm said people need to know the evolutionary history of bears to understand their behavior and why they might charge at humans. Bears, he said, evolved to fit their environment. Grizzly bears adapted to open planes. “They learned to react and ask questions later,” he said. In contrast, black bears evolved in forested areas and tend to run and hide. 

Andrews said human created food sources like garbage, livestock, compost bins, fruit, vegetable gardens, dog food, barbeque grills, and even hummingbird feeders attract bears and create conflicts.

He said removing bear attractants from around the home and putting up electric fencing around livestock and cornfields can help minimize human contact with bears. 

He said bears have a “fantastic sense of smell,” and people might think they have picked up all the fruit from their trees, put away the dog food, secured the trash, but they still see a bear on their porch. The problem could be in the barbeque, he said. Bears can smell the bits of meat left on the grill. Andrews said spilled motor oil has also been known to attract a hungry bear.   

Reducing bear and human conflict is important for the safety of both species. Problem bears are often relocated or have to be killed. For humans, a conflict can result in injury or death, but they seem to be fairing a bit better overall.

“Bears don’t really kill that many people,” Primm said. He said bears killed a total of nine humans in North America since 1988, and self- defense tools made a big difference in a person’s survival rate during a bear attack.

He said only one person of the nine human deaths had access to a firearm or bear spray. The one man with access to a weapon had put his gun against a tree to attend to the elk he had shot. The lesson in this story is that people need to have a means to protect themselves against bear attacks, he said. Bear spray was the most effective against bears 92 percent of the time. Firearms were found to be 77 percent effective.

Primm said people should avoid close contact with bears by making noise, being aware of surroundings, and checking the direction of the wind so they don’t end up surprising a bear. “A bear is likely to leave if they smell you before an encounter,” he said.

He shared a simple rule: “If you see a bear, and it’s not running away, get your bear spray ready. Don’t stand there and try to identify the species first, just get out the spray.”

Make sure the spray isn’t expired. Writing the expiration date on the can with a marker is helpful because the date on the sticker can wear off. “Don’t push it past the expiration date,” he said. 

When the bear is about 30 feet away, the length of three cars lined up, push the safety clip off the top of the can, aim the can slightly downwards and pull the trigger. “It’s a cloud, not a stream,” he said. 

Primm said people should try to stay calm during a confrontation, especially around grizzly bears. “Don’t run or scream. If you run, a grizzly bear will chase you,” he said. 

Martha Whitman attended the informative event. She lives in the Jocko Canyon and has seen black bears but hasn’t seen a grizzly bear yet, although she has heard that grizzlies are traveling up and down the creek in the area. She practiced spraying a can of bear spray during the event.

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” she said. “I think people should get a can and practice. It was easy to spray, but getting the safety off was harder. Practicing also helps you learn to aim the can then you’ll have muscle memory if the real thing happens.”

More information and resources like bear proof trashcans can be found at www.peopleandcarnivores.org. 

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