Sunday, September 26, 2021
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Farewell to Monica and her three cubs

| September 15, 2021 1:00 AM

Four female grizzly bears, — a sow known as Monica, along with her three yearling cubs — were killed in the North Fork last week. The tragic loss of these magnificent animals is particularly heartbreaking because it happened in a place I’ve called home for decades; but their story is, unfortunately, not unique.

Bear-human conflicts have happened in Whitefish, Ferndale, Eureka, Mission Valley, Swan Valley, and basically everywhere grizzlies and humans overlap. But Monica and her cubs weren’t killed by accident or in self-defense; they had to be put down by state officials simply because 1) they were looking for food and 2) people made it too easy to find. The result is four deaths of a threatened species that could have been avoided if only people had been more careful.

We might have learned from what happened just three years ago, when Monica’s cubs became food conditioned, in the same area and a similar situation, and both of those cubs had to be euthanized.

It’s not a new story. But what has changed is the increasing frequency and severity of encounters, as people pour into Montana to grab a piece of the Last Best Place and to live and play in some of the best wildlife habitat in the Lower 48 states. Where else can we see grizzlies, wolves, and mountain lions out our back doors? (And sometimes on the porch, if we’re not careful.)

What people don’t realize is that bears can smell food for several miles through their highly evolved olfactory superhighway, estimated to be seven times greater than a bloodhound’s. If there’s a forgotten sandwich bite or bowl of dog food out there, they will find it. That is the beginning of the end, as the bear then learns to seek out human habitats for food. There is no legal consequence to the careless human, only death for the bear.

Another part of the problem is the change in Montana’s human landscape from a solid community of year-round, local residents to an ever-changing, adrenaline-seeking playground for transient recreationists who don’t understand or respect wildlife. Monica’s infractions were mostly caused by just a few people’s mishandling of their food and garbage.

So much work has been done with wildlife outreach, bear-aware programs, brochures, websites, home visits, etc., that we all should know by now how to better live with bears. Tim Manley, Justine Vallieries, Regi Altop and others have dedicated decades to helping local folks live with bears as wild neighbors. This has prevented many bear mishaps, but of course not all of them.

So why do people in bear habitat keep planting fruit trees and gardens, hanging birdfeeders, leaving barbeque grills outside, improperly disposing of garbage, and planting green grass lawns that are irresistible to bears in the spring? What more outreach and education can be done to keep wildlife wild and minimize conflicts?

Has the time come where human mismanagement of food attractants is so widespread that a mother grizzly can no longer raise her cubs in the Polebridge area?

It seems likely, but I’m certainly hoping not.

Diane Boyd is a wildlife biologist and North Fork landowner.