Celeste Ambrose was walking her 90-pound lab Kenai on a warm September afternoon recently in Greenough Park when he started to tug on the leash. His hair stood on end as he stared into the dense, bushy wooded area near the inner loop by Rattlesnake Creek. Ambrose dropped the leash so he wouldn’t drag her, thinking another dog had caught his attention.
It was a black bear.
“He’s down in the bushes, probably napping. He wasn’t big but he wasn’t small. The dog was barking like hell, kind of moving toward the bear but tentatively. Then the bear stands up and he’s about 5 or 6 feet away, and waves his paw at me. I’m like, ‘Holy moly!’ and backed away, clapping my hands, yelling at the dog, trying to make as much noise as I can. The paw seemed to be huge and it scared the daylights out of me,” Ambrose recalled.
“He did what I perceived at the time to be a bluff charge. The dog came to me and I turned and ran. I know you’re not supposed to run, but I was scared sh—less. The trail is full of roots and I didn’t want to stumble and fall as I backed away.”
Jamie Jonkel, a bear specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said it’s that time of year when bears are wandering into the outskirts of Missoula, desperately searching for food as they prepare to hibernate.
“They’re circling all around Missoula,” Jonkel said, adding that he’s called schools to let them know of the uptick in bear activity. “The apple shuffle is on and it goes from having a handful of bears to lots of bears. At times you can have up to 30 bears in the Rattlesnake going for the apples.
“We’ve been waiting for it to happen and it looks like it is.”
He added that while grizzly bears are spotted in the greater Missoula area at times, he hasn’t had reports of any so far this year.
Missoulabears.org reports black bear activity in the Rattlesnake Creek Bottom and trail system between Pineview, Tom Green, and Greenough parks. They range from a female with a cub to a large brown black bear and a subadult black bear. Bears also are reported in Grant Creek, East Missoula, Lolo Creek and Potomac.
Elissa Chott with the Great Bear Foundation is organizing volunteer crews to remove apples, plums and other fruits from yards as bear activity increases in the greater Missoula area. She noted that Missoula once grew apples that fed the nation, and the abundance of fruit trees is a nightmare for wildlife managers.
So far this year, she has a list of about 35 households where fruit needs to be gathered up and removed. They pick the fruit from the trees, and also “glean” it after it’s fallen to the ground. People can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 829-9378 to either volunteer to collect fruit or to get on the fruit removal list. Similar services are available in the Flathead; see the “Flathead Fruit Gleaning” Facebook page.
Some homeowners keep the fruit, but the Great Bear Foundation distributes the best fruit to the Missoula Food Bank, the Poverello Center and other interested parties.
The foundation also presses bruised and lower-grade apples into cider. But they donate the bulk of the apples to Western Cider, which produces Great Bear Cider.
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“We get 10 percent from their sale,” Chott said. “This year is prolific for apples. We’ve already gleaned over a ton of fruit and have been doing this just for a few weeks so far. That’s about 2,000 pounds of apples in two weeks.”
Matthew LaRubbio, co-owner of Western Cider, said he loves the collaboration and being able to help mitigate the nuisance bear problem. Members of the public also are invited to drop off their apples at the Broadway Avenue tasting room.
“We encourage people to not turn in rotten, bruised or open-fleshed apples, or early season apples,” LaRubbio said, noting that they don’t make for good cider and are better for apple sauce. “Worms are OK.”
They accept apples from noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, offering a $5 voucher for the tasting room for every 40 pounds of apples.
His staff sorts them and also asks donors to fill out a card saying where the apples came from and whether there’s a story to go with them.
“We love hearing their stories, and love doing this in general. The participation in making cider that’s truly local is a community effort and celebration,” he said.
Beth Judy, who lives in the Rattlesnake area, said volunteers worked out a program with Republic Services to offer bear-proof garbage containers to her neighbors at a discounted rate to encourage people to get them. They’ve also asked residents to not put their garbage cans out for pickup until an hour or so before Republic Services makes their rounds.
Judy recalls one neighbor who thought bears weren’t going through her garbage, but Judy found that neighbor’s prescription bottle on a mountainside one afternoon — evidence to her that a bear had dragged it out of the garbage can.
“I told her, ‘Your stuff is out. It’s in the hills and out for anybody to see,’” Judy said. “If people are not going to do it for the right reasons, then I’ll mention the other reasons.”
She recalled another incident when a black bear that seemed to be sick was lying in the bushes only 6 feet from a 3-year-old neighbor.
“That’s really a big one, being a danger to a child,” Judy said. “In Tom Green Park a child was on a bike, looked right at a big rock and behind the rock was the big black bear that’s been here for a few years. There’s just so many bear encounters, and I’m seeing a lot of apples on people’s trees. And we’re seeing garbage in bear scat in Greenough Park.”
Still, many Rattlesnake-area residents said they enjoy sharing their world with the bears, and just hope that people will remove attractants, including bird feeders and dog bowls — even without food in them — to protect their neighbors and the bears.
“I’ve lived here for 13 years, and know that the bears tend to be in this area, especially on trash night,” Ambrose said. “The dogs get on edge, and bark a lot, but we usually don’t think much about it. I’ve seen bears walking down the street from my car, so this wasn’t much of a surprise but I hadn’t encountered one that close.”
She knows that people should carry bear spray, but added that the encounter happened so quickly that she probably wouldn’t have been able to use it.
“He went back in the bushes and I got the hell outta there,” Ambrose said with a laugh. “I haven’t been back to Greenough Park since then, and have no plans to go there anytime soon.”