A sign in a Columbia Falls neighborhood warms walkers to be on the lookout for bears. Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP

COLUMBIA FALLS — A recent early morning walk through a Columbia Falls neighborhood along the banks of the Flathead River revealed a few tell-tale signs of the challenges the Flathead Valley community faces this fall. First off, the number of trash cans left out at the end of the drive a day or two after pickup has dropped significantly. You’ll occasionally need to step over a pile of bear scat on the sidewalk. And you might even need to consider altering your route after seeing a crudely written sign declaring, “BEWARE! BLACK BEAR SEEN ON THE TRAIL.”

Bears have long been a part of life in the Flathead Valley and western Montana, but officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks say this year has been particularly challenging when it comes to bear-human conflicts. The number of “town bears,” as one FWP specialist called them, getting into trouble this year has increased so much that Columbia Falls passed an emergency ordinance earlier this month to address the problem.

“We’re expecting a very busy fall,” said Justine Vallieres, a bear conflict management specialist for FWP’s Region 1, which covers all of northwest Montana. “Fall is always a busy time of year for us, but I think this fall will be harder than most.”

This year, the number of calls about black bears and even grizzly bears breaking into garages, sheds, cars and more has increased dramatically, Vallieres said. She pinned the blame on a bad berry crop this year and more people moving into areas where bears once roamed unnoticed. 

 “Fall is always a busy time of year for us, but I think this fall will be harder than most.”

Justine Vallieres, bear specialist for FWP’s Region 1

Traditionally, she’ll get a number of complaints about bears in the spring, when they first emerge from hibernation. But the number of calls tends to drop come mid-summer when huckleberries and other fruit ripen. Once all that has been eaten — either by bears or tourists — the number of calls will again tick up in the fall as the bruins search for their final meal before hibernating.

But this year, the calls never stopped, and now, with winter just around the corner, the bears are in a frantic rush to pack on the pounds before the snow flies. That means they’re getting bolder in their exploits and are spending more time in town.

Vallieres said she and the other bear conflict management specialists in Region 1 have been getting upwards of 60 calls per day about bears, especially around Whitefish and Columbia Falls. In August, one black bear got his 15 minutes of fame when a video of him wandering around the Kalispell Center Mall parking lot downtown was posted online. Vallieres said it’s very rare to see bears that far into populated areas, but she expects it could happen more this fall. 


The problem of the urban bear

Food-conditioned bears and an expanding human footprint in Missoula, Flathead and Gallatin valleys are creating problems for both species. Bear managers are on the hunt for solutions.

In response to the problem, the Columbia Falls City Council has passed an emergency ordinance, effective Sept. 6, to deal with bear attractants in town. The ordinance will last for 90 days and require residents to put their trash cans out only on the morning of pickup; to pick all fruit from trees and off the ground on their property; to remove or empty bird feeders at night; and to store indoors any coolers, grills, smokers or anything else with a food scent. Chicken coops also are required to have electric fencing around them. 

Caleb Sobczak, building, planning and public works clerk for the city of Columbia Falls, said people can be fined $500 for violating the ordinance, though she said collecting fines is not the ordinance’s goal and only repeat offenders will be ticketed. He said the most important thing is educating the public on why it’s important to eliminate attractants when they can.

Vallieres said that’s particularly important because trapping and relocating the bears away from town is a “band-aid solution” and not an easy one. More often than not, the animals will just come right back.

“It’s harder to get a bear to go into one of our traps,” she said, “when there are so many attractants around town.” 

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.