As temperatures cool, bears all over the state are venturing closer to humans in search of calories for the winter. One Missoula organization is helping keep conflicts between bears and people to a minimum, and giving back to the community at the same time.
Elissa Chott says all winter long, her car smells like apple pie. She’s the bears and apples coordinator with the Great Bear Foundation, and that apple-y aroma is because every fall she spends her days knocking apples off trees with a long, metal rod.
“There are just thousands and thousands of apple trees up in and around the drainages around Missoula,” Chott says. ”So that draws the bears down.”
The homeowners here in the Rattlesnake Recreation Area outside Missoula called Chott to report a bear in their yard. So she came over to help them get rid of the attractant: apples. The sugary snack attracts black bears down into residential areas. Gleaning these trees - meaning riding them of all their apples - accomplishes a simple but important objective:
“That helps keep the bears in their safe space up in the hills where they can find the natural food sources and not become habituated to people,” she says.
She’s often out here with students or volunteer groups, but today she’s alone. This is her sixth season gleaning trees, and every year she collects thousands of pounds of apples. None of the fruit goes to waste. All of her pickings either go to organizations that feed the needy in Missoula, or to a cidery that makes a community batch of hard cider with the donations.
“Right now, if we picked all the apples in Missoula, we could probably fill up 10 railroad coal cars. There's that much fruit. And it's just so abundant,” says Jamie Jonkel, a bear manager with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“Well, in the fall, usually around September, bears go into what’s called ‘hyperphagia,’ he says. “And that’s where they have to feed, get a lot of calories, put a lot of fat on their back and in their stomach. And so all of the sudden they go in that mode of really moving through the country, across all types of terrain, seeking natural foods.”
Jonkel says while bears are traipsing around, they can come across things like dog food, birdseed and apple trees. This food’s particularly tasty and full of calories. This time of year, bears start turning up in yards - and Jonkel’s phone starts ringing.
“And it doesn’t take much for a bear to then shift onto that higher, richer food source,” he says.
If a bear does become habituated, Jonkel or other FWP employees make sure the homeowner puts away whatever was attracting the bear in the first place. If the animal makes it clear it won’t leave the residence alone, it will either be relocated or put down.
“This year we have really high conflicts with both grizzlies and black bears up in the Blackfoot Valley. We have extremely high conflicts up in the Lolo Creek area,” Jonkel says. “But elsewhere it hasn’t been too bad.”
He says population growth in the area means these sorts of conflicts aren’t going away anytime soon - and they’re not limited to bears.
“By enhancing the habitat - by living on it - humans have made really excellent wildlife habitat into supreme habitat,” he says.
He means urban areas where people have birdfeeders, gardens, chickens, ponds, and of course apple trees.
“We definitely see that in the Missoula area,” he says. “I mean we have more deer and elk and lions and bears living on the fringes of the Missoula Valley than we do out in the backcountry. And that’s because we’ve enhanced the habitat to such a point that it’s sucked the wildlife back in.”
Back at the apple tree, Elissa Chott’s gathering the hundreds of apples that have rained down to the ground around us.
“Bears usually go for the riper ones,” she says. “You know, some of them aren’t picky, but they’re like us. They like sugary, sweet stuff, so they’re gonna go for the riper apples.”
She says basic efforts like getting rid of extra fruit and keeping other attractants safely put away are part of the hard work of helping people and animals get along.
“How much did we get off this tree?” I ask.
“79.7 pounds,” she says. “So average is probably around 150 to 250 or 300. The record was almost 600.”
Chott loads up her car with the cardboard boxes full of apples. These apples aren’t quite ripe enough for the food bank, so she hits the road for Western Cider, where these apples will become part of this year’s pressing of a community brew.
“People love that they have this option to get rid of their fruit and that it goes to a good cause as well,” she says.
For more information on how to be bear aware this fall, visit FWP’s guide.
For more on volunteering as an apple picker, visit the Great Bear Foundation.