The grizzlies are close. Over the past few years, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Jamie Jonkel has seen plenty of signs around the fringes of Missoula. Several collared bears have made “little forays” through the North Hills, he says, including Ethyl, the grizzly sow whose 3-year, 2,800-mile trek through Montana and Idaho made headlines in 2014. More recently, Jonkel was able to verify a grizzly mortality from 2017 up Johnson Creek near Bonner. When the first grizzly to visit Missoula proper finally arrives, Jonkel is confident it will be in the Rattlesnake.
“We really don’t know how many bears there are in the Rattlesnake, but we do know there are at least a few residents,” he says, adding that it’s “probably just a matter of time before we get a resident female that sets up shop right on the edges of Missoula and starts having young.”
That eventuality was enough of a kick in the pants this winter to prompt Missoula City Councilmember Bryan von Lossberg to reconvene an informal coalition that’s been hibernating for a decade. The so-called bear buffer zone working group, whose original ranks included Jonkel, was instrumental throughout the 2000s in crafting a bear-specific waste ordinance passed in 2010. Now the group is back, as Jonkel puts it, to tie up some “loose ends.”
Members of the group’s latest iteration include Jonkel, Defenders of Wildlife representative Erin Edge, Republic Services waste disposal and several Missoula residents. Over the past few months, they’ve succeeded in cutting the per-quarter rental cost for Republic’s bear-resistant garbage cans in half. Member Beth Judy, who also sits on the board of the Rattlesnake Creek Watershed Group, says the cost reduction was accomplished via to the availability of 200 used Bearsaver trash carts Republic recently pulled from service in Red Lodge. Republic has so far distributed 40 of the carts to Rattlesnake residents.
Judy is hopeful the initiative will help solve one of the biggest problems she sees in the Rattlesnake when it comes to bears: participation. The 2010 ordinance requires residents to keep garbage cans indoors until the morning of pickup, but Judy notes that many residents still leave them out overnight or even all week long. Enforcement has waxed and waned, she adds, depending on Animal Control’s resources. Anyone who’s lived in the Rattlesnake for more than a couple of years, even on her stretch of Vine Street near I-90, has a black bear story.
“We should be worrying about each other,” Judy says, “because if one person on a block does the wrong thing and attracts bears, they’re putting everybody at risk, especially young people and old people.”
Jonkel seems more optimistic about the progress residents in Missoula’s more bear-prone areas have made. Compared to 15 years ago, he says, it’s “night and day.” Still, as the bigger bruins get closer, he acknowledges there’s still work to be done.
“We did some of the heavy lifting in the first group,” Jonkel says. “I’m looking at this next one as kind of doing the finesses … getting it just right.”