“It was a hellish year for black bears with us,” said Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Jamie Jonkel towards the end of 2022.
During a Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s Northern Continental Divide Subcommittee meeting (yes, it’s a mouthful) last December, he didn’t stop there. “Black bears were nuts this year,” Jonkel added. “We were busy from May on, just constant black bear stuff. And it’s still going.”
As Billings Gazette cites, Jonkel is a veteran bear manager of the Missoula area. And in his decades-long career, he has never had to deal with such a sheer volume of bear-conflict reports. He’s never seen as many bears active through the winter as he’s seeing right now, either.
At the time of his previous comments, the full 2022 conflict data for his Region 2 hadn’t even been finalized. There was no way for it to be, as conflicts were still pouring in. In total, the sheer volume of reports from last year will be off the charts once documented in full.
And that’s just for black bears.
‘I haven’t even started on the grizzly bear stuff’
“I haven’t even started on the grizzly bear stuff,” Jonkel added. Almost two months into 2023, he was only halfway through logging black bear conflicts from 2022. That halfway mark? 800 incidents. That’s twice his Montana region’s total black bear conflicts reported throughout all of 2021.
As for those grizzlies, Montana’s larger bears were showing unusual winter behavior. “We’ve got a lot of grizzly activity still from the Blackfoot.” As BG‘s Joshua Murdock cites of the situation, “trappers couldn’t set traps yet because the bears weren’t denning.”
In short, whatever has Montana bears on edge is bleeding over into 2023. Most of North America’s black bears aren’t true hibernators and will stay semi-active throughout winter in milder-to-warm climates. But where it gets real cold and icy, bears still den up. Or, some of them do.
“There’s more bears than we have ever had in a normal winter,” Jonkel added. And he has no idea what’s causing all of this commotion.
“Could be an anomaly. Could be an indicator of climate change,” he said. “Could be an indicator of bears saying, ‘Well, I’ll just stay out and keep eating because the food’s available.’ Could be an indicator of bears saying, ‘Look, I’m hurting and I’m going to come out early.’”
Why are Montana Bears Spazzing Out?
More recently, Jonkel went on record saying “I’ve got some theories” as to what’s happening, however.
In 2022, Montana saw a widespread “failure” of natural food sources for bears. Whether black or brown, the resources they typically seek were either scarce or non-existent. This leaves bears skinny and hungry. But it also forces them to pursue what food does exist. And humans have a lot of food to spare.
From poultry cooped up in yards to overflowing trash cans and dumpsters, Montana bears had a buffet at their disposal. But this is far from ideal, and leads to the sort of record-breaking year Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks doesn’t enjoy.
One curiosity has Jonkel stumped above all others, though. “What’s unusual this year is we’ve already had three sets of grizzly tracks seen in the upper Blackfoot,” he said. The area, which lies northeast of Missoula, is prime grizzly habitat. But typically, the first grizzlies to emerge each year in the Lower 48 are in Yellowstone National Park.
Yet here we are in 2023 with Blackfoot grizzlies beating them to the punch, signaling another bizarre year for Montana and their bears.