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The Missoula Valley’s first confirmed resident grizzly family didn’t get the welcome Jamie Jonkel hoped for.

“Our first reproducing female with cubs has already been taught to break doors and find garbage,” the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear manager said  Monday. “It’s a tragedy she’s escalated to that level so quickly.”

A snow storm that was expected to hit Missoula on Monday evening will probably trigger the sow and three cubs to den up and hibernate for the winter. That should play taps for all the other black bears that have been running game wardens ragged this summer around the Missoula Valley.

Missoula bear buffer zone

By next spring, Jonkel anticipates they will meet a different reception.

“I’m really hoping the communities along the North Hills — Grant Creek, Butler Creek, the Rattlesnake, LaValle Creek — will rally around and work closely with us,” Jonkel said. “I’m meeting with the (Missoula) county commissioners and the city council and Republic Services (the garbage hauler) soon. We need to strengthen the bear buffer zone and mitigate some things for next year.”

The Missoula Valley abuts the southern edge of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, and the largest population of grizzly bears in the Lower 48 States. More than a thousand grizzlies roam the forests of Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Mission Mountains and the Forest Service lands north of Missoula.

That’s more than double the number estimated to remain when the grizzly was given threatened status under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1975. As the bears have recovered, they’ve also started exploring and colonizing places where they haven’t been seen for decades or even a century.

“Any more, we consider the Rattlesnake and virtually everything down to Interstate 90 as occupied grizzly habitat,” Jonkel said. “This is our first known resident female. She’s not cruising through. Her home range is the North Hills.”

Given her appearance of good physical condition and triplets, Jonkel suspects the sow is probably raising her second litter of cubs and may have been exploring the Missoula fringes for some time. But she didn’t show up in his conflict reports until this spring.

Looking for proof

Unverified grizzly sightings arrived from several people in April and May, but no one had any photos or other hard evidence. To complicate matters, the 2021 summer had a remarkably productive berry crop in the lower Missoula Valley, which drew in dozens of black bears. The smaller species members also found plenty of bird feeders, pet food, unsecured garbage and other human attractants to keep them hanging around.

In September, Jonkel got the first blurry photo of the suspect grizzly, but it wasn’t clear enough to confirm. Then on Oct. 26, a LaValle Creek resident got video of her on his game camera.

“The very next night, we had a chicken coop hit,” Jonkel said. “And it was the same site we photographed a grizzly last year. I thought — Oh, dang — it’s her. Last year she was alone, and now she’s here with cubs.”

Four days later, a North Hills rancher reported a grizzly family had raided an abandoned cabin. FWP wardens investigated and found their worst possible scenario for bear survival. Whoever had left the Indreland Road cabin also left lots of garbage outside, and a freezer full of rotting meat. Graduate education in the school of bad bear habits.

Then the sow tore up a garage and broke some of its windows on Nov. 1. Food didn’t appear to be an issue there. Rather, a cub may have got itself stuck inside and Momma had a fit getting it out. The wardens set traps and cameras for the bear family. They tripped the shutters, but not the trap doors. Then they disappeared for a few days.

On Nov. 4, they hit a garage near Snowbowl Ski Resort. Over the next week, they hit several food sites, but not the traps.

“Our last activity was Wednesday,” Jonkel said. “On Friday with that bit of fresh snow, we drove all over the North Hills but didn’t see any tracks. We closed the traps on Friday, and I expect she’s headed for the den. If she'd been captured, there was a good chance we'd have had to put her down.”

Growing trouble

Grizzly bears have been raiding garbage and getting in conflicts around the western edge of their recovery area in Flathead County for the past decade. The Ovando vicinity 40 air-miles northeast of Missoula has seven or eight grizzly family groups active, in addition to an unknown number of individual bears.

Despite the shorter experience, Missoula has been more proactive than the Flathead in responding to grizzly conflicts. A city law passed in 2006 prohibits putting out feed to attract wildlife inside the city limits. In 2010, the city council approved a bear buffer zone wherein residents must keep garbage in bear-resistant containers and keep other food attractants secured. The buffer zone includes neighborhoods in East Missoula, the Rattlesnake and Grant Creek valleys, the South Hills and Miller Creek.

Jonkel expects the four grizzlies will get noticed again next spring or fall — the two times of year bears have the most need of quick meals. Although their trail of damage this November indicates they've become habituated to human food, Jonkel held hope that they might be reformed.

Consistent use of electric fencing around chicken and farming supplies, removal of bird feeders and porch freezers, prompt gleaning of fruit trees and other simple measures have been effective at keeping bear conflicts down. In the alternative, a fed bear is a dead bear.

For more information on keeping both people and bears safe, check out Missoulabears.org.

This article originally ran on missoulian.com.

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