October 17, 2016
Russell Talmo

Conflicts between humans and bears can happen more often this time of year as bears must eat enough food to make it through the winter. Thankfully there are simple steps and useful tools to keep bears and people’s property safe.

Cooler temperatures and falling leaves signal the arrival of fall here in the Rocky Mountain West. It also marks a precarious time of year for bears, as their search for food can lead them into backyards — and into conflicts with humans.

It’s no small feat for bears to find enough to eat to put on enough weight as they dig their dens and prepare to enter hibernation in November and December. To overwinter in their dens, bears slow their metabolic activity and have to be able to survive off of the body fat reserves they’ve stored up throughout the year. This is even more critical for female bears that need additional calories and a substantial fat layer to give birth to their cubs and nurse them through the winter.

Bears are omnivores, and their diet can vary widely. They rely on a variety of foods from vegetation such as seeds, berries, roots, grasses, and fungi to protein rich insects, deer, elk, and fish. This time of year, bears are highly motivated to find any food they can. When their natural food sources are scarce, they are more likely to turn to the things found in people’s backyards. This can include everything from garbage to domestic fruit trees to someone’s backyard chicken coop.

Grizzly bears are especially vulnerable to humans because humans often consider grizzlies more of a threat than black bears. As a result, humans wiped out grizzlies across almost their entire range in the lower 48 states, which once spanned from the Pacific Coast to the Mississippi River and from Canada to Mexico. By the 1970s they hung on only in very small areas in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. Thanks to the protections of the Endangered Species Act, and a lot of work from many people to reduce conflicts, grizzlies are slowly increasing in number and in range in a couple places in the northern Rockies.

A Nonlethal Solution: It’s Electric!

© Russ Talmo/Defenders of Wildlife

“Thank you so much for helping me to make the electric fencing around my chicken yard a reality…I just wanted to thank you & to let you know your work matters.”
-Electric Fence Participant, 2015

As some grizzly populations expand, grizzly bears are being seen in some areas for the first time in decades. Adding to the temptation for hungry bears is the rapid increase in backyard hobby farming across the West. This means there are more chicken coops, bee hives, and other bear attractants on the landscape. In addition, more and more houses and their accompanying attractants border or are within what once was prime grizzly bear habitat.

As a result, we’re seeing conflicts between bears and humans in new places. These conflicts can result in bears being relocated or even killed for eating a chicken dinner. Fortunately, there are resources, tools and techniques available that can keep hungry bears out of trouble and property and people safe from harm.

Defenders’ popular Electric Fence Incentive Program is one way we are working directly with residents of grizzly bear country to minimize conflicts between bears and people.

Initiated in 2010 and currently serving key areas of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington, our Electric Fencing Incentive Program provides financial and technical assistance to residents installing bear-resistant electric fencing around items that could attract bears. We completed more than 210 fencing projects through the end of 2015. And the program’s popularity grows each year, as more projects continue to roll in for the 2016 season.

In fact, we are seeing so much interest in our incentive program and the use of electric fencing to address bear conflict issues that we’ve created our own how-to video for folks at home. This instructional video gives a step-by-step account of how landowners can build a simple electric fence to secure their attractants. While this how-to video is geared toward residents in grizzly bear country, a simple electric fence can also help people dealing with black bear issues and many other wildlife conflicts, and we encourage everyone who lives in places with bears to consider installing a simple electric fence as described in the video before wildlife conflicts occur (just be sure to check local building codes).

Many Ways to Help Keep Bears Out of Trouble

As effective as this program is, electric fencing isn’t the only solution to every potential conflict. That’s why we also invest in other tools and methods to prevent bear-human conflict. So far this year, we have:

  •  Helped provide funding for bear-resistant garbage storage for residents in northwest Montana
  • Assisted with costs associated with three range rider projects in grizzly bear and wolf habitat in Montana. Range riders are used to increase human presence around livestock, with the intent of minimizing livestock loss to predators
  • Helped purchase and install bear-resistant food storage lockers for backcountry river campsites in prime grizzly bear habitat in northwest Montana

Since 1997 we have invested over a million dollars in these types of projects. Defenders is dedicated to long term grizzly bear recovery in the lower 48 states, and that means working on the ground to secure attractants to keep bears and people safe, as well as pushing for better federal and state policies to benefit bears. It will take us all working together to minimize human-bear conflicts and to ensure grizzly bears are here to stay.


Russ Talmo

Russell Talmo

Rockies and Plains Program Associate
Russ Talmo is based out of the Missoula field office, working directly with landowners and management agencies while managing the Electric Fence Incentive Program and the Yellowstone Bison Coexistence Project.

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