(Missoula Current) Citing an increase of bears in Missoula and surrounding valleys, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is asking residents to keep trash and pet food, along with other attractants, out of reach.

In other words, lock them up.

Jamie Jonkel, bear management specialist with FWP, said bears are extra active this time of year, especially in lower elevations where food is more abundant and needed as the animals prepare for winter.

Jonkel, who helped spearhead Missoula’s efforts toward “bear smart” status, said most bears reported in the valley bottoms over the last few weeks have been black bears. Some of those “black” bears aren’t actually black, leading some to mistake them for other species.

“Several black bears seen and photographed near Stevensville in the Bitterroot Valley have light fur and have been confused as grizzly bears,” FWP said in a statement. “Several lighter colored black bears have also been reported in Missoula’s Rattlesnake neighborhood, near Greenough Park. No grizzlies have been confirmed in the Rattlesnake in recent weeks.”

However, one confirmed grizzly bear was, as of last week, spending time in the northern Bitterroot Valley. The bear was first documented in early August when it was incidentally captured as part of a Bitterroot black bear research study and has remained in the area since.

The male grizzly weighed 275 pounds in August but has added about 50 pounds of weight since. The grizzly has been spotted multiple times and is mostly keeping to more remote private lands between Lolo and Florence.

“It hasn’t been involved in any conflicts but has found apple trees in a few locations, including at least one tree near a home,” Jonkel said. “Picking apples and collecting those apples that have already fallen, especially on trees near homes, is the most reliable strategy against preventing conflicts with humans.”

While the grizzly is after apples, several black bears in the Bitterroot have found garbage, in addition to fruit trees and other attractants. Near Potomac, both black bears and several grizzlies have been finding food near homes in recent weeks as well.

Unsecured garbage is keeping bears in the area, Jonkel said.

“Bears are in hyperphagia right now and will continue to come down into our valleys over the next month, looking for food as they prepare for winter, so it’s an extra critical time to keep everything picked up around our houses,” said Jonkel. “Given the number of bears in these areas, it really is up to each of us to take preventative measures to stay safe. If there’s an unsecured food item out there, it is best to assume that a bear will find it.”

A western Montana community website, missoulabears.org, includes a collection of information from area partners on how to keep your property bear resistant and provides a spot to track recent wildlife activity and report attractant issues and wildlife sightings.

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