MISSOULA -- Just as an almost unprecedented number of black bears have flooded the valleys of western Montana after food sources played out higher up, so too has the road-kill count climbed to abnormal levels.
A bear expert for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said 14 bears have died on highways in the “biggest hot spot” up the Clark Fork and lower Blackfoot river valleys above Milltown and Bonner.
Seven were killed on a stretch of a few miles in the Turah area in September, both on Interstate 90 and Highway 10 East. A female and two cubs died as a result of a single collision on Highway 200 in the lower Blackfoot.
“It’s unbelievable,” Jamie Jonkel said Monday. “Every fall we get a lot of road-killed black bear and a few grizzlies. This year is worse, and you just attribute that to the same old thing.”
The bears started coming down early this year, in late July and early August, as an early berry season petered out in the mountains, wildlife experts say. Ten weeks later, they’re still scrambling through treacherous environs to get their fill of apples and berries in river valleys before winter sets in.
“It won’t really get quiet until the end of October,” Jonkel predicted. “This is usually when we have the worst period, from about Oct. 1 to the end of October. I’m expecting much, much worse in the next two weeks. All our natural foods are completely dried up right now, so they’re going to really be pushing the edges.”
The website missoulabears.org started tracking the road kills on Aug. 14, noting that “several black bears have been killed on the highways in recent weeks” in the Blackfoot Valley and Missoula area.
“This is most likely due to bears moving around the valleys and river corridors for berries,” it said.
In early September, single adult male black bears were killed on I-90 near Alberton and St. Regis, and two more lost their lives in Seeley Lake and Bonner. The Buckhouse Bridge area and Evaro Hill were scenes of other kills, and on Oct. 1 came news that a black bear cub was hit by a car and killed in the Rattlesnake. More recently, there have been kills in Florence and south Stevensville.
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They happen both day and night, Jonkel said. As the hyperphagia period kicks in, the bears become even more intent on preparing for hibernation, and in a lot of cases access to the best food is during the day.
“Bears are pretty savvy,” he said. “It doesn’t take them long to figure out which day is garbage day. And a lot of people take their birdfeeders in at night and put them out again the next day.”
The Bonner area is a good example of a wildlife movement corridor, with two rivers converging between three mountains and lots of finger ridges, Jonkel said. Throw in an interstate highway, multiple frontage roads and railroad tracks, and it’s easy to see why the autumn road conflicts occur.
Cubs are among the most vulnerable. In some cases, they’ll trail their mothers across a highway.
“Sadly too, there’s (other) road kill and the bears will want to drag that deer off the road, so they rush out to go grab it,” said Jonkel.
A "huge" adult male bear died on Interstate 90 in the Hellgate Canyon between Missoula and East Missoula after it somehow got past the chain link fence designed to keep wildlife out, he said. Once they’re inside, “there’s not much of a chance there.”
The highways of the Bitterroot Valley present a different scenario from those around Bonner. Flanked by tall mountain ranges on either side, with all the good food habitat on the river, the bears have to work their way “down side drainages and through thousands of backyards,” scaling fences and squeezing through culverts on the way, said Jonkel.
“Suddenly they hit the highway, and that Bitterroot highway is now “super two” (lanes) on both sides.”