Montana group works to keep grizzly bears out of garbage dump sites
Published at | Updated at
GLEN, Montana (AP) — Kim Johnston is trying to get ahead of grizzly bears before they start showing up in new places around the High Divide, like in Glen, a town north of Dillon.
Just last fall, a trail camera caught footage of a grizzly roaming through the Brown’s Gulch drainage not far away from Glen’s formerly open dump site, according to Johnston. The sighting was emblematic of a larger pattern.
Thanks in part to successful conservation efforts, grizzly populations in and around Glacier and Yellowstone national parks are rebounding. More and more, the federally-protected bears are wandering away from recovery zones that were designated for their protection decades ago.
Grizzlies on the fringes of Glacier National Park are largely moving south, and grizzlies on the fringes of Yellowstone National Park are largely moving north. The two populations are meeting in the High Divide region in between.
That’s why Johnston has focused the bulk of her work in small towns around the area, which stretches southwest of Butte toward the Montana-Idaho border. As field project manager for the group People and Carnivores, she helps area residents get access to the tools and resources they need to avoid conflicts with large carnivores.
“It’s really important to be proactive to prevent conflicts from happening in the first place,” she told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “We want grizzly bears to survive and expand between these core ecosystems instead of coming down into valley bottoms and learning to access unnatural food sources.”
Lately, Johnston has worked on securing garbage at transfer sites around Beaverhead County, including the site north of Glen. The project is called “Keeping Grizzlies out of Garbage” and it’s aimed at putting in infrastructure to keep grizzlies away from attractants.
The Glen site lies in between the Bitterroot, Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems. It’s an area where People and Carnivores staff expect bear populations will eventually meet. Like much of rural Montana, it’s also an area where dumpsters have historically been left open for the public.
People who live in rural areas often don’t have access to garbage pickup services, so they drive their trash to county transfer sites, Johnston said. Containers at these sites are left open to make the process easier for area residents.
Lids over the containers at the Glen site could open and close, but county employees only closed them once or twice a week when trucks came to haul garbage to a landfill, Johnston said.
There was no method for the public to close the lids on their own, and predators and scavengers started causing problems, she said. Animals began dragging carcasses and trash bags into the brush, and nearby ranchers worried about attacks on livestock.
Staff with People and Carnivores approached Beaverhead County with the idea of securing the county’s dumpsters a few years ago, and now anyone can open or close metal-grated lids over containers at sites near Glen and Wise River.
On a recent Monday morning, Johnston pushed a white button at the Glen site. A metal-grated lid lowered, then clamped over a dumpster. It was filled nearly to the brim with trash bags, carcass parts and other scraps.
“We sent letters out to local residents to let them know why (the lids) are here and what their purpose is,” she said. “We’re ensuring that people understand why it’s important to keep the lids closed.”
Finding funding for conflict-prevention tools like hydraulic lids can be tricky, but the key is getting people together, according to Johnston. “A lot of people do want to find solutions and help out if they can,” she said.
People and Carnivores partnered with Beaverhead County and Beaverhead County Solid Waste on the “Keeping Grizzlies out of Garbage” project, and they got some funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to Johnston.
In Madison County, the group installed hydraulic lids at a refuse site outside of Virginia City, and staff are working on getting more installed at a site by Pony. A black bear was recently caught rummaging through garbage at that site, she said.
Virginia City’s hydraulic lid system has worked well, so the town started looking for more solutions, according to Johnston. People and Carnivores helped officials there secure a grant from the Fish and Wildlife Service so they could purchase steel, bear resistant canisters for the town.
Now, the town is at the heart of a region-wide “Bear Smart Community Program” modeled after a similar initiative in British Columbia. The program addresses attractants at all levels of a community, from landfills to garbage at a residential level, Johnston said.
While the program is still in development, Virginia City’s town office now offers bear resistant canisters to all area residents, and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee has agreed to be the entity that recognizes communities like Virginia City as “Bear Smart.”
“The goal of this whole program is for it to be very flexible and customizable, but it’s a community developing a program that will work for them,” Johnston said. “It’s not any outside group like us or anyone else coming in and telling them what they need to do and what rules they need to follow.”
The importance of securing attractants came to the forefront in mid-October, when two sub-adult grizzly bears were spotted raiding dumpsters at a refuse site by Chico over in Park County. Wildlife managers attempted to trap the food-conditioned bears, but they eluded capture.
To Johnston, the situation showed that resources aren’t keeping pace with an expanding grizzly bear population, and bears are learning to get food rewards.
People and Carnivores has focused mostly on the High Divide area, but the group has been coordinating with Park County and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks following the recent incident, according to Johnston.
Park County found a way to close lids at the Chico dump site at night, but it is still working on finding longer-term solutions, she said.
“People aren’t sure what to expect as grizzlies are returning to these areas … but bears really do want to avoid humans,” Johnston said. “Bears will really learn to navigate through these areas without coming into conflict if we can learn to secure or remove those attractants.”