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Are there really more
bears around this year?

by Mike Thompson
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
September 10, 1998


Life hasn't been a bowl of cherries for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks' wardens this summer. It's been more like an Alfred Hitchcock movie. But, instead of Tippi Hedren fleeing from hordes of dive-bombing birds, it's more apt to be Bill Koppen or Barry Cummings fending off armies of invading black bears.

Wardens in FWP Region 2 have received hundreds of calls about problem bears this year. In his letter that appeared in the July 30th edition of the Pathfinder, Bill Koppen reported that he had received over 150 calls about bear problems in and around Seeley Lake. That's busy enough on top of a normal summer workload, but imagine what it must be like to be Doug Dryden in Superior. Doug received 206 "bear calls" in August, bolstered by a flurry of 20 on August 31, including four bear relocations that occupied him well into the night. I haven't heard from Jeff Campbell in Lincoln or our Region 2 contingent in Deer Lodge and the Bitterroot, but if they're on the run like our team in Missoula, we've got an epidemic of human-bear conflicts from the Idaho border to the Continental Divide.

Dianne Schmautz told me about a call she received at the Missoula office in August. It seems a brazen black bear crashed through a screen window and entered the caller's kitchen, scattered things about, and then defecated on the porch stoop before leaving. At the same time, a cub was recovered at FWP headquarters after being removed from a riverside housing development. Only the day before, volunteer Heather Marshall had driven to Bearmouth to pick up a road-killed bear along I-90. Just an hour after hearing Dianne's story, Sharon and I made a quick trip to the Game Range and spotted a small bear on the way out of town, hiking just a few yards above the congested interstate highway through Hellgate Canyon. When we got back that evening, an exasperated Barry Cummings had just returned from another bear call, hoping he would have a bit of Friday night to himself before his phone rang again.

Many factors have been blamed for this year of the bear. Near the top of the list is a sparse huckleberry crop in the mountains. Add a prolonged period of hot, dry weather, and you've got bears moving into stream edges, searching for succulent vegetation and clusters of serviceberries and chokecherries. Nowadays, when a bear works its way downstream, there's almost no way to avoid bumping into a house or summer cabin, complete with horse feed, apples, bulging garbage cans and bird feeders.

You really can't blame the bears for forsaking the wilds in years like this. Their survival through winter depends upon a summer of fat accumulation. Under difficult foraging conditions like this summer, nutritional demands can override the instinct to avoid humans. And, now that more humans are choosing to live in the wilds, conflicts are sure to increase in future years.

But, are there too many bears?

It's the obvious question that puts FWP biologists on the spot. Unfortunately, the answer is not so obvious. But, maybe we can put things in perspective by comparing last year's conditions with the seemingly chaotic situation we find ourselves in now.

Bear-human conflicts occur every year, and last year was no exception. However, with a normal berry crop and a wet summer, bears were not a chronic problem in 1997. Yet, black bears were quite possibly as numerous in 1997 as they are in 1998.

The black bear is a species with a low reproductive rate. The average female must overcome difficult odds to survive at least six years to its age of first successful reproduction. Thereafter, mature females produce cubs only every three years or so. If you do the math, you will agree that a black bear population explosion in the space of only one year is highly unlikely.

This illustrates how weather conditions and other factors dramatically affect the numbers of bears we see from one year to the next, regardless of how many bears there are in the population. But, it sidesteps the question of whether there are "too many" bears. After all, if there are roughly as many bears this year as there were last year, it's possible that there were "too many" bears last year as well. A good berry crop simply may have held them out of our houses.

The best indications we have of black bear numbers and population trends come from inspections of harvested bears. Since 1985, FWP has required hunters to present their harvested bears for inspection so that teeth can be collected and sex verified. By comparing year-to-year trends in numbers of bears harvested, FWP biologists can obtain a sense of whether bears are becoming more or less numerous. Trends in the age and sex distributions of harvested bears provide additional clues for consideration.

Bob Henderson has overseen the collection and analysis of data from harvested bears in Region 2 from the moment the first hunter presented the first bear. Credit Bob with the graphs you seen on this page.

FWP took notice when a gradual downward trend in all indicators emerged from 1985-1993. In response, FWP shortened the spring hunting season in some Bear Management Units to avoid the harvest of sexually mature females, which become more vulnerable to hunting pressure in late spring. If you look carefully at the graphs, you can see a corresponding change in seasonal harvest trends since the new regulations were implemented in 1994.

Bob tells me that human-bear conflicts are dominating the lives of state and provincial wildlife officials this year all across the northwest United States and southwest Canada. This phenomenon is widespread, as are the weather patterns that contributed to its cause, regardless of whether bear populations in the different areas are high, low or in between.

Every so often a year like this comes along when black bears seem thick as fleas in subdivisions and campgrounds, and these years attract intense scrutiny of FWP's bear management. However, high numbers of human-bear conflicts are not by themselves reliable indicators of relative bear numbers. When the dust settles from this current outbreak, you can bet that FWP biologists and wardens will be comparing notes to devise recommendations for the 1999 hunting season.

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