for National Geographic Today
"Can you call me back in about an hour and a half. I'm right in the middle of a job," said Erik Wenum, a wildlife management specialist in Kalispell, Montana.
Wenum answered the call while he was tracking a cougar, or mountain lion, that had staked out a house on the edge of town. When he was finally able to talk, about 24 hours later, he had dealt with not only the cougar but also a grizzly and a black bear that had wandered into town.
Last year, Wenum received about 2,800 calls concerning bears and cougars in the backyards of people's homes. This year, he expects even more.
"I sleep in February, when the bears hibernate and the cougars have an easier time hunting," jokes Wenum, of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who is on call 24 hours a day in the summer months.
As the mountain town of Kalispell (pop. 14,000) grows, so do encounters with predators such as cougars and black bears. It's a problem that increasingly plagues other expanding urban areas, especially those in the western United States, where potentially dangerous wild animals are more common.
"Just about all of the people in Kalispell live in black-bear habitat and on the edge of grizzly and cougar territory," says Wenum. "As the town develops, people are encroaching into land that up till now has belonged to the bears and [mountain] lions."
With expansion comes people's garbage and petslures for bears and mountain lions. And in some large urban areas, the use of green corridors for beautification often provides convenient travel routes for wildlife.
In Search of "Fast Food"
Black bears typically enter towns seeking food. Dog food left outside for pets is also nutritious for growing bears, says Wenum. Nectar in hummingbird feeders, bird seed, and suet are tasty high-calorie snacks for hungry bears that need to pack on body fat before their winter hibernation. An unfortunate by-product of bears' excursions into town for "fast food" are interactions with people.
Mountain lions are attracted to towns out of more aggressive motives. Shy and solitary by nature, they enter populated areas in search of prey such as deer, which are drawn to lush gardens and lawns. Domesticated house cats are also a favored prey.
"Of all pets, cats are most at risk, and the lady I was helping last night has 11 of them," says Wenum. "She called to say that a cougar had been prowling around and was now sitting quietly in the driveway eyeing the house. It was probably figuring a strategy to get in."
Cougars target house cats "because they consider them like baby cougarsfuture competition," says Wenum.