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The bear necessities of coexisting

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It’s been a tough year - not only for farmers and ranchers in the foothills of the Mission Mountain range, but also for grizzly bears who call the area home. During the past 10 months four grizzly bears have been euthanized due to grizzly-chicken encounters, with two grizzly killings in a four-mile radius of Ronan in the past month.

Last week there was another grizzly killed on Hillside Road in Charlo. Three miles east of Ronan a homeowner killed a bear that had climbed through his electric fence and subsequently killed two chickens. The bear returned later the same day and was shot by the landowner. The incident was later deemed self-defense by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Two additional bears were captured in Coram the same week next to Glacier National Park’s west entrance and moved to the Spotted Bear drainage. The two yearling grizzlies had been feeding around residences getting into dog food, chicken feed, and bird seed.

According to CSKT Wildlife Biologist Stacy Courville, these incidents could have been avoided if human food and livestock were properly protected.

“We have seen a large increase of people moving into the foothills and setting up unprotected chicken coops,” Courville said. “Animals and food will attract bears easily.”

Courville added that when Tribal Fish and Wildlife have to step in and take action, it affects more than just the homeowner who may have lost livestock or produce from their garden.

“It’s unfortunate when a grizzly is taken down because it is often a sow with cubs,” he said.

World renowned bear expert Chuck Jonkel from the Great Bear Foundation in Missoula says there are many factors that explain the high number of recent incidents.

“Last year was a poor food year for the bears,” Jonkel said. “There were very few berries that are critical for survival. Some bears are starving to death.”

Combine low food and a late spring and one can see why so many bears are frequenting around resident homes.

“The best thing is to keep food and animals inside a structure,” Jonkel said. “It’s not a good idea to raise animals in bear country.”

The best way to protect one’s garden or livestock is to surround them with an electric fence. A properly constructed electric fence has proven to be effective in deterring bears from beehives, fruit trees, gardens, garbage, chicken coops and dog kennels. According to Kim Annis of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, electric fences used to deter bears must have 6,000 or higher voltage, should be at least four feet tall, and should have a minimum of five wires.

When bears are not euthanized, they are transported to other locations in the state and around the country, which can be a stressful for the animals. According to a press release from CSKT, an adult female and two cubs that developed a taste for chickens last year were captured and moved to the Louisville, Ky. Zoo in August.

Courville says the majority of bears remain east of U.S. Highway 93, though some use brush and water corridors to travel west of the highway and live in the valley all summer long.

“Bears can be many places,” he said. “They aren’t always in forested areas.”

When venturing into the wilderness, Courville says there are preventative measures that can be taken to lessen the chances of an encounter.

“First off, always carry bear spray,” he said. “It’s important to make noise if you see signs of recent bear activity.”

He also advises people to leave their dogs at home because when they chase bears, dogs are often chased back. Most encounters can be completely prevented if one makes noise while in bear country.

“You don’t have to shout, just casually talk because the human voice carries a long way,” Courville said.

The months between April and November are typical for increased bear activity, and with an unusually high snow pack still lingering in the mountains, there is very little food for the hungry animals.

“It’s just starting,” Courville said. “So far we’re about the same as last year, and last year was pretty bad.”

For those interested in learning more about electric fences, Mountain West Co-op in Ronan will hold a predator electric fence clinic from 5-8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 8.

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