Montana Town Seeks Ways to Repel Cougars, Bears

Bijal P. Trivedi
for National Geographic Today
August 27, 2001
"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 pets—lures 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 cougars—future competition," says Wenum.

Summer is the peak season for problems with mountain lions in urban areas, and it's generally the young cats that cause trouble. "More than 90 percent of my problems are with juveniles, lions that are younger than two years old," says Wenum.

In the summer, prey is more dispersed across Montana and cougars must travel much farther to find a meal. August is an especially tough time for young lions that have been left to fend for themselves.

"These youngsters are inexperienced hunters, and the most important thing is to let them know that homes and ranches are not places to find an easy meal," says Wenum.

In many cases Wenum scares away the lurking cougars with a barrage of beanbag shells and rubber bullets fired from a shotgun. He chases them and uses a pack of hounds to tree them. "Beanbag rounds and rubber bullets sting, and being chased up a tree is no fun," says Wenum. "However, we want them to have a negative association with people."

In cases where livestock have been killed and people threatened or injured, the cougars are usually killed, says Wenum.

"We take a hard stand with cougars," he says. "These animals are looking for something to kill—it could be cats or dogs, but it could also be children or adults."

Experimental Trapping

Based on hunter surveys and yearly harvests, Wenum says the cougar population in western Montana is estimated between 5,000 to 7,000 lions. Exact numbers are hard to come by because the secretive nature of mountain lions makes them particularly difficult to count, but a ten-year study to determine their numbers is in progress.

The population consists of roughly equal numbers of males and females, and of the animals that are harvested there is a wide distribution of ages—young, old, and middle-aged. This tells us that the population of mountain lions in Montana "is in good shape," says Wenum.

As for bears, removing an easy food source in an urban area avoids the problem of unwanted visits about 80 percent of the time, says Wenum. For repeat offenders, Wenum is developing new techniques—averse conditioning—to modify the behavior of troublesome individuals.

The approach entails trapping the offending bear in a giant barrel-shaped trap that has a gate triggered by the motion of reaching for bait. Once the bear has been captured, it is drugged and held overnight. That gives Wenum an opportunity to take blood samples for genetic analysis and to place a radio collar on the bear.

Once the trapped bear recovers from the drug, Wenum takes it back to the place where it was captured and showers it with beanbag shells, rubber bullets, and a ruckus of yelling and barking. He then releases Karelian bear dogs, bred in Finland for hundreds of years to hunt brown bear, which chase the bear into the forest. "[The dogs] instinctively want to find bears and chase them up trees," Wenum says.

"I want the bear to have completely recovered from the drugs so that it realizes that it is people doing this to him," says Wenum.

The aim is change the bear's response toward the place where it was captured—from a place associated with a good meal to one associated with dogs, yelling, and a stinging assault.

So far the method seems successful. Of the 470 bears that Wenum has collared and released using this approach, less than 2 percent have been involved again in urban intrusions.

Wenum hopes the conditioning approach, which is still being developed, will eventually be found effective and adopted by other states so the number of bears killed in urban areas can be reduced.

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