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The Hand That Feeds
This combination of more people and more bears makes the community one part paradise and one part powder keg.
Eli Hampson squeezes into the culvert trap. The grizzly next to him is sedated now, and her body rises and falls with slow breaths. Her nostrils flare and make a noise that lands somewhere between a snore and a growl. He’s close enough to smell the earthy stench of her coat as he loops cuffs around her feet and, with the help of his fellow Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) biologists, hauls her out of the trap and onto a screening table. I don’t know if anybody ever gets used to crawling into a metal tube with a grizzly bear, but if Eli is nervous, he hides it well.
Of course, the last thing the bear likely remembers is nibbling at roadkill in a suspicious steel cylinder, hearing the twang of a tripwire, and watching a gate slam shut as soon as she took the bait. Then she acted in ways cornered grizzlies often do: gnawing on the bars until her gums bled, pounding her body against the corrugated steel. She dug at the seams, chipping one of her five-inch-long claws in the process until finally succumbing to exhaustion, or resigning to the situation. As human footsteps approached, she locked eyes with her captors as the tranquilizer dart sank into her shoulder.
With the bear now splayed out on the table, a team of wildlife specialists calmly moves the motionless animal as they begin the screening. Methodical, gloved hands check her weight, take body measurements, and collect blood samples. More hands secure a GPS collar around her neck, tag her ear, and insert a microchip beneath the thick skin of her nape. All of this happens while others monitor vital signs and provide oxygen to make sure the bear is stable and, most importantly, not waking up. I am reminded that while this operation burdens a level of risk and discomfort for the individual bear, the information gained will feed into a knowledge bank which benefits the species as a whole.
Through thick eyeglasses, Jamie Jonkel fills out paperwork while Eli and the others get some handling practice, stepping in to help when they get stuck. While some on the team are new to this work, Jamie is no stranger to grizzlies. In his 45 years of bear research, his knowledge is unmatched. Those close to him even joke that he is part bear with his lumbering gait and broad shoulders. All the bear needs is a pair of suspenders and a tattered “Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks” baseball cap.
Guilty of raiding grain bins that locals were using for pet food storage, this grizzly had been reported outside of Ovando, about an hour northeast of Missoula. She hadn’t been looking for trouble. With fall passing, the draw of a calorie buffet was too much to turn down — the biggest priority for any bear at this time of year is to ensure enough food intake prior to denning up for winter. Bears are opportunists. If it’s got nutritional value, there’s a good chance they’ll eat it. As more people move to and through Montana, grizzlies like this one are drawn to the meals humans inadvertently serve them. The challenge is getting people to stop doing it.
Jamie and Eli have been charged with the uphill task of responding to bear conflict across FWP’s Region 2, an area of Montana that could fit the entire state of Massachusetts with room to spare. Often it feels like a losing battle. Once a bear becomes conditioned to an attractant site, separating it from a new food source can be difficult, if not impossible. Moreover, these traits are often passed from mother to cub. If a sow successfully gets into dumpsters, bird feeders, campsites and grain bins, it’s only a matter of time before her young follow suit. Repeat offenders are typically euthanized. There is a popular saying around here: “A fed bear is a dead bear.”
I ask Jamie what’s going to happen to the one lying on the table in front of me.
“She’ll get another chance.” As the sentence leaves his mouth, the grizzly raises her head in post-anesthesia confusion. Jamie shoots Eli a look. Alert but not hurried, they grab the tarp she’s lying on and haul her back into the mobile culvert trap that allows wildlife managers to attach the rig to a truck hitch for easier relocation.
I ask where they plan to relocate her.
“Just a little ways outside of Seeley,” he says, readjusting his hat.
The gate slams shut.
* * *
“It’s the funnel effect,” Jamie explains, using his hands to mimic the topography surrounding Montana’s Clearwater River. He adds, “Wherever you get these drainages that come together, that’s good bear habitat.”
He points out the driver’s-side window. “That’s also right where Seeley is. I hate to say it, but Seeley right now is sort of a ‘problem bear factory.’ Because of certain human activity, we’ve made behavioral traps that set bears up to get into trouble.” He finishes his lunch of cold chicken wings, brushes his hand on his T-shirt, and checks the rearview mirror for a view of the trap attached to the pickup. As we roll down the main drag in Seeley Lake on our way out of town, the grizzly is regaining consciousness.
In many respects, Seeley Lake — “Seeley” to locals — is like many other tourist towns in Montana. Situated along Highway 83, it sits on a scenic route that connects Glacier National Park to Yellowstone. With proximity to hundreds of miles of hiking trails and plenty of camping, it’s an ideal getaway for those seeking rest and recreation. Lake homes dot its shores. Jet skis zip across its namesake waterbody and fishing boats rock in their wake. Aside from the local lumber mill, Seeley’s economy thrives chiefly on people passing through its campgrounds, bars and restaurants.
However, beyond the town’s quaint face value lies a growing problem. Like other communities in Montana that have experienced explosive development, Seeley is enduring its own growing pains. Along with a spike in tourists, Carrie Sokolowski, a local realtor for the past decade, has seen a new demographic of people moving from Washington, Colorado, California and Texas.
“We’ve had a huge influx of people, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began,” she says. “We saw a lot of people who were living in urban areas looking for a more rural setting. What I’ve seen in Seeley is a lot of people moving here as full-time residents instead of just seasonal. Since the last census, we’ve gone up about 200 people, which is a lot if your total population is only 1,500.”
People aren’t the only ones crowding the landscape.
While there were as many as 50,000 grizzlies in the Lower 48 as recently as the 1800s, the population was decimated during Westward Expansion. By the time they were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, their numbers had dwindled to just a few hundred. Since then, grizzly populations have rebounded to roughly 2,000 bears in the Lower 48 — the largest populations reside in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and just north of Seeley in a recovery zone called the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Now, grizzly bears are moving back through places they used to call home. Places like Seeley Lake.
This combination of more people and more bears makes the community one part paradise and one part powder keg. Newcomers aren’t necessarily aware of best practices for living with bears, and an honest mistake can escalate problems — quickly.
“The number of phone calls, emails and texts I get has increased 20-fold,” Jamie says. “In the old days when there weren’t a lot of people living in Seeley, we would get the occasional garbage can tipped over, the occasional bird feeder yanked down, or the occasional chicken killed. Now, with all the people moving into Seeley, instead of five chicken coops, we’ve got 200. Instead of one or two people with a bird feeding station, we’ve got 800. As more people move in, we get more phone calls, which means more management action.”
Bears are quick to learn, and like their human counterparts, they don’t like working harder than they have to. A pound of huckleberries — a staple in bear diets — yields about 300 calories. A pound of discarded restaurant food in an unsecured dumpster can easily yield four times that. Instead of digging seeds, scavenging berries, or defending carrion, bears can quadruple their caloric needs in a fraction of the time by coming through town. The problem for communities like Seeley is that every human-created attractant serves as a potential conflict, and the inability to effectively manage them can have catastrophic repercussions.
On July 6, 2021, a 417-pound male grizzly entered Leah Davis Lokan’s campsite at a park in the middle of Ovando, MT, shortly after it had raided a nearby chicken coop. Lokan was making her way along a portion of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route with two others. The campers had food in their tents and the group initially chased the bear off with bear spray. Despite them then removing and securing the food, the bear returned around 3:30 a.m., dragged Lokan from her tent, and fatally mauled her.
This tragedy demonstrates how quickly bears can become fixated on a food reward site, but it is also worth remembering that humans are far more lethal to bears than vice versa. From the time they were listed as threatened in 1975 to 2021, only 22 grizzly attacks have resulted in human fatalities in the Lower 48, but in the past 10 years, there have been more than 350 grizzly deaths in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem alone. While some bear mortalities are from natural causes, the majority have had to do with humans: automobile collisions, illegal defense of property, poaching, defense-of-life and agency removals.
So if people know there are more bears and they know what attractants are likely to result in conflict, why aren’t they doing more about it?
* * *
Through the early spring drizzle, Patti Bartlett watches Jamie Jonkel kick off a lecture on bear behavior to a group of Seeley Lake Elementary students.
“How many of you have had bears in your yard?” he asks.
Twelve hands go up.
“How many of you have had bears get into your garbage cans?”
Twelve hands stay up.
Bartlett is an educator who’s spent 16 years in the classroom and most of her life in Seeley. Today she is hosting “Bear Academy” — an outdoor, station-based educational event that brings together experts and community leaders from ten different organizations to teach some 200 students about living responsibly in bear country. They’ll learn about everything from bear identification, to indigenous perspectives, to training with inert bear spray canisters on a remote-controlled grizzly that simulates a charging bear.
“If you have no sense of place, how can you have respect for it?” she asks. “You can’t. I believe the best way to build it is through place-based education. Everything my kids learn in science can be related to the world around them. I can relate what we learn in the classroom to working in the creek or working in the woods. You can relate almost everything to kids once you get them outside.”
The problem isn’t that people don’t want to create a more educated, bear-safe community that better manages its attractants. The problem is that they often can’t afford to.
“We have high poverty, and garbage pickup costs money,” Bartlett says of Seeley. “At our school, we keep our dumpsters in a cage. In the summer they should be empty, but they’re overflowing because people will drive by and throw their trash there. It happens everywhere.”
The average household income in Seeley Lake is 13% lower than the state average of $54,970, but these numbers don’t necessarily speak to conditions on the ground. Those who live there year-round may experience higher rates of poverty than those who buy property in Seeley to build vacation rentals or second homes.
It’s an oversimplification to draw straight lines between economic instability and unsecured attractants, but the fact remains that trash costs money. Residential garbage pickup from a provider like Republic Services costs roughly $34 per month. Spend the money on a bear-resistant container and that price jumps to $44 per month. Some choose to avoid the bill altogether and simply store their waste in trailers or garages until they have a full load, which they can take to the municipal transfer station for free. But Bartlett reminds me, “When you’re struggling to drive anywhere, it’s sure a long way to go to the dump.”
Despite these challenges, Seth Wilson, executive director for the conservation group Blackfoot Challenge, sees a future where collaboration can help communities address financial and technological gaps.
“We understand that it’s critical to keep attractants out of the reach of bears, but it’s also critical that you do it in a thoughtful way,” he says. “One thing we’ve prided ourselves in is the importance of building long-term relationships and bringing respect to those relationships, and that approach has allowed us to address these issues with more comprehensive tools.”
Along with other organizations like FWP, Blackfoot Challenge has secured funding for trash enclosures, bear-resistant dumpsters, and electric fences for small businesses and residents in need of assistance. Technologies like these can teach bears to change their movement patterns in ways that prevent encounters. Just as a bear can quickly learn how to access a food reward, it can also learn to move along if it’s unsuccessful in obtaining one.
This is an issue that should be simple to solve. It’s trash. It’s food reward sites. It’s attractants. Beneath educating kids, beneath educating tourists or landowners, beneath accessing the right technologies, lies the fundamental step of acknowledging that we are the hand that feeds conflict. It will likely not be the bear that comes back to bite us, but the loss of the ecosystems we claim to adore. Lasting solutions will require action that focuses not just on one backyard — or just one town’s backyards — but the kind that spans entire landscapes.
On the other side of the Mission Mountains west of Seeley, Kari Eneas works as a wildlife biologist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Natural Resources Department, and often collaborates with FWP officials. The grizzlies that move through Seeley often end up on the 13 million acres she manages.
“When we talk about grizzly recovery, it needs to include connectivity between recovery zones so that you have genetic flow,” she says. “If bears lose habitat connectivity because of human development, I don’t know if you could ever call it an effective recovery. When we choose to live in areas that bears are already using, it’s no wonder we have conflict.”
What qualifies as “effective recovery” has come under scrutiny. In December 2021, Governor Greg Gianforte’s office petitioned the federal government to delist the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem’s grizzly population from the Endangered Species Act and remove their protections in the process. Almost as quickly as the state announced the petition, it made plans to reintroduce a tri-state grizzly hunt along with Idaho and Wyoming.
This isn’t the first time delisting has been attempted — it happened once in 2007 and again in 2017. In the latter instance, circuit courts ultimately determined there weren’t adequate monitoring mechanisms in place that would ensure the long-term health of the species. Like Eneas, the courts also stressed the importance of habitat connectivity between grizzly subpopulations to promote greater genetic diversity. Without meeting those two conditions, federal and state governments are unlikely to push through a delisting and hunting agenda.
While the goal with any threatened species is to raise its population to a sustainable level, it will take more than hunting permits to achieve meaningful conflict resolution. The shift needs to be bigger. It will take leadership that’s willing to integrate city planning with wildlife corridors. It will take public and political will to fund development that considers ecological needs as much as it does housing or recreational demands, especially at a time when Montana is experiencing such rapid growth. It will require people to act on education backed by good data, including grade-schoolers and governors alike.
After winding down Bear Academy, I invite Patti Bartlett to celebrate the day’s success at the nearby Filling Station Bar and Restaurant. She plops into a corner booth and orders a Diet Coke. I ask her if she thinks events like this will really make a difference in the way young people interact with places like Seeley.
“I hope that when kids leave my classroom, if they don’t remember the Pythagorean Theorem — and they better.” She smiles and wields her pointer finger. “But if they don’t, they better at least know how to care about where we live. I just hope people learn to really love this place, instead of loving it to death.”
* * *
At the end of an old logging road high up in Lolo National Forest, a grizzly is waking up. She’s calmer than you’d expect, probably due to the anesthesia lingering in her bloodstream. The steel trap amplifies her groans as she picks up new scents in a new place. On the other side of the bars, Eli prepares for the release. Check the pulleys, set the chocks under the tires. Do it carefully. Get it right. If there is a time something is going to go wrong, this is it.
The final phase of relocating a bear means opening the trap and sharing close quarters with a very awake, very confused grizzly. Nobody talks about the tension, but it’s there.
Everything checked and then checked again, this is one of those times when Jamie is firmly in control. On his word, everyone retreats to the relative safety of the pickups. He flicks a remote switch and the cable tightens against the pulley. The gate slides open.
From the darkness of the trap, a face emerges, eyes timid. There’s a GPS collar around her neck and a shiny yellow tag hanging from her left ear. There is a paw. Then another paw. She doesn’t bolt for the trees or turn on her captors. Instead, she pauses at the edge of the trap, nose twitching. The scents of this new environment offer a more accurate bearing than her eyes can. Sensing safety, she hops down, and with her claws touching dirt for the first time today, she ambles along the overgrown road, turns to the forest and is gone.
Bears have been residing on this landscape long before it ever had a name, and people will continue to follow them. They will bring with them new attractants. They will affect the bear’s life, and the bear will presumably affect theirs in return. There are many agencies, landowners, conservation groups, and tribes trying to figure out what the next stage of our relationship with grizzlies should look like, but they could learn a lot from watching field specialists like Jamie and Eli work: Do it carefully. Get it right.
As he hooks the trap to the hitch, it strikes me how young Eli looks. He only started full-time with FWP three years ago, but despite his status as a relative newcomer, he’s clear-eyed about the challenges that lie before him. There will come a day in the not-too-distant future when Jamie retires, and with him will go a trove of knowledge that has shaped grizzly conservation in the West. As the sun starts to set, I jump in the pickup with Eli and we follow Jamie down the mountain. I ask if he feels ready to fill those shoes when the day comes. He scoffs.
“Time will tell,” he says. “We’ve got more people, more bears, less habitat, fewer places to put bears. There will always be work to do, but seeing his dedication gives you some sort of motivation to always be there.”
He pauses, then adds, “For the people, as well as for the bears.”
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