It’s a bittersweet end to a story that began east of Ronan in May, when an adult female grizzly with two cubs developed a taste for chicken.
She eluded traps set by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes for much of the summer, and by the time she was captured, the chicken habit was ingrained – and may have spread to include pigs as well.
Oftentimes, such behavior results in a death sentence for the bear.
“And that would have meant putting her cubs down, too,” says Dale Becker, wildlife manager for the tribes. “We had a problem doing that over chickens. I understand that people’s property is valuable to them, but killing three grizzlies is not something we want to do.”
Relocating the mother and her cubs, the tribes concluded, wasn’t likely to end the sow’s newly acquired taste for chicken – developed, it should be noted, because some people didn’t take measures that could have safeguarded their chickens from such attacks.
Moving the grizzlies a much greater distance from the area also wasn’t an option.
“People who manage other lands aren’t really interested in taking a grizzly that has a history like this one does,” Becker says. “We were starting to look at the option of putting her down.”
And that’s where a tragedy several hundred miles southeast of the Flathead Indian Reservation may have saved the lives of these bears.
On July 28, in a campground just outside Yellowstone National Park near Cooke City, a female grizzly invaded the tent of three sleeping campers and mauled them, killing a man from Michigan.
That grizzly was captured and killed the next day.
Her three cubs were also caught, and ended up at ZooMontana in Billings.
But a couple of zoos in the Midwest had also expressed an interest in those cubs when grizzly bear recovery coordinator Chris Servheen of Missoula went looking for a home for them.
With the help of Servheen, the tribes were able to place the chicken-eating grizzly and her cubs from the Flathead Indian Reservation in one of those zoos.
“When people don’t eliminate attractants, bears usually end up dead,” says Germaine White, information and education specialist for CSKT’s Natural Resources Department. “This bear got off really lucky, and so did her cubs, because she was teaching them bad behavior as a consequence of chickens that were unsecured. But we also lost three grizzly bears from our population.”
The three bears will take up residence at the Louisville Zoo’s new Glacier Run Bear Habitat when it opens next spring, and are the zoo’s first-ever grizzlies.
“The agencies responsible for managing grizzlies in the wild often have the difficult challenge of balancing conservation and interactions between bears and the public, agriculture and industry,” Louisville Zoo director John Walczak says. “This is a great opportunity for us to assist them in their efforts and to bring a new bear species to the zoo.”
The grizzlies were transported to Louisville two weeks ago, and zoo curator Steve Wing says they’re adapting well to their new environment.
“Mom is calm and attentive, and is quickly building trust with her keepers,” Wing says. “The female cub is bold and adventurous, while the male cub is a bit more cautious.”
The grizzlies are currently in quarantine, and are likely to remain off exhibit until the spring opening of the Glacier Run Village and Bear Habitat. The Montana grizzlies will be displayed separately from polar bears that are also part of the exhibit.
Bears are not uncommon in the area east of Ronan, Becker says, but “in the past they seemed to blend in. They were not aggressive.
“This one was fairly non-aggressive, too, except for when it came to finding chickens. In that respect, she got pretty proficient.”
And, he says, was pretty smart.
“We’d put out snare nets, but she’d figure out how to spring or deactivate them,” Becker says. “We finally did catch her in a culvert trap.”
CSKT wildlife biologists Stacy Courville and Shannon Clairmont, Becker says, were “the guys on the ground who did the hard work.”
Once the sow wasn’t there to protect them, the two cubs were trapped within a day or two.
The bears did well as they were prepared for the 36-hour trip back to Kentucky, according to Becker. The cubs were drugged first, and then their mother was sedated, before being loaded.
“Some you get in a trap are very aggressive, very aroused,” Becker says, “but she handled it really well. The cubs – it’s just another adventure for them, they’re like any kids.”
Still, it was a loss of three grizzlies from the local population, and Becker says it didn’t have to happen.
“It’s frustrating,” Becker says, “because each year we do a lot of outreach and remind people about things that attract bears, and things they can do that keep bears less apt to come close to yards and homes.”
In the case of chickens, for instance, Becker says a little electric fencing can go a long way toward turning bears away, and keeping the birds safe.
“We’re on the fringe of grizzly bear range, and we’ve lost two females and one male from our population,” he says. “We were able to keep them alive, and send them to a good home. It’s just not the home we wanted for them.”
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags: buffalo post, Chris Servheen, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Flathead Indian Reservation, Germaine White, Glacier Run Bear Habitat, Grizzlies, Grizzly bears, John Walczak, Louisville Zoo, Native American news, Yellowstone National Park, ZooMontana