“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”: Swan Valley Bear Resources is Charged for Coexistence

By ROB RICH

Jan Moore will never forget waking to the sound of a grizzly cub wailing with its mother thundering inside a culvert-shaped trap. It was the furious attraction of family denied freedom by inches of metal. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Grizzly Bear Specialist Tim Manley was trying to relocate the whole family together, and as the panicked calls reported the pre-dawn rage, he could only sigh and get dressed for another day on the job. It was but the latest reminder of the obvious fact: “easy” and “bear management” do not belong in the same sentence. Especially bear management after the problem, which for these bears was a humble chest freezer stashed outside a house. Though the freezer’s walls and contents were hard, bears can smell through and open a latchless door, and an elk steak popsicle is apparently quite a treat.  

Jan and her husband Chris had previously attended Swan Valley Connections’ annual Spring Bear Wake-Up Social near their Ferndale home, and they knew that such “attractants” – freezers, livestock, birdfeeders, bees, fruit trees, and more – were enough to lure bears from miles away. A chance taste might not be of consequence were it not such an addictive habit, one that individual bears learn, pass on to others, and come to expect.

That’s why US Forest Service (USFS) Wildlife Biologist Mark Ruby and SVC decided this vicious cycle – which so often led to dead bears and scared people – had to end. In 2008, they allied in a partnership called Swan Valley Bear Resources (SVBR), which quickly became a local beacon for the bear aware movement that’s sweeping the West. A decade later, SVBR continues to meet real needs with real expertise including outreach for the public, technical assistance for private landowners, and conflict monitoring for agency wildlife managers. SVBR’s free container/dumpster loaner program is among its most popular services, and at the end of last year there were 244 of these bearproof garbage cans throughout the Swan Valley, including on 12 percent of private lands with structures (and that’s beyond what trash people store safely in garages or houses).

But for the non-trash attractants that can’t be mashed in a container – say, the vegetables, fruit trees or compost of the Moore’s immaculate garden – SVBR has another solution: the electric bear fence. Thanks to cost-share support from partners like Defenders of Wildlife and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, SVBR can economically reach private landowners with the consultation, design, and installation services to produce durable solutions that work. Robert Frost was being wry when he quipped “good fences make good neighbors,” but this kind of fence really does find success, and more as an instructor than an impervious wall. Bears learn best when they teach themselves, and an electric fence epitomizes the “passive aversive conditioning” that results in well-educated bruins.

 Electric bear fences are custom-built and adaptable to the particular needs of each site, and here Luke, Mike, and Chris explore the options for wiring the door. These fences are also extremely cost-effective investments that secure landowner attractants with practical methods, spare money required for expensive post-problem management, and save bears from needlessly losing their lives.

Electric bear fences are custom-built and adaptable to the particular needs of each site, and here Luke, Mike, and Chris explore the options for wiring the door. These fences are also extremely cost-effective investments that secure landowner attractants with practical methods, spare money required for expensive post-problem management, and save bears from needlessly losing their lives.

As the Moores got to thinking about their neighbor’s freezer raid, they wisely decided to install an electric fence as a preventative, nonlethal tool. The building process is deceptively simple, and a quality product demands common sense, strength, and finesse in the right place at the right time. The materials are few and basic – wire, insulated wire, plastic insulators, a grounding rod, energizer, and power source – but when strung taut and linked they become an effective, even elegant, circuit of power. Wire tension (to keep the charge from grounding out on the base fence or vegetation) and connection (for charge to flow through all) are the keys to success. And since bears know the world best through their nose, SVBR typically designs fences with three to five wires; the lowest rung gets the sniffer, the uppers thwart climbers. It takes a whopping 8,000 to 10,000 volts to deter a grizzly – not enough to cause harm, but just the right jolt for dismissal from school.

With Luke, Mike, me and the Moores all working together, the fence turned into a wonderful masterpiece of creativity, resourcefulness, and sweat. The first time we thought it complete and flipped the switch for a test, we groaned when a wire clicked against the steel post behind it, a sign of voltage sapping through the plastic padding we thought was a sufficient buffer. But Chris had the answer in an old punctured hose, which we promptly upcycled for triumph. SVBR is incredibly thankful for landowners like Chris and Jan, and not merely for the hose and the hospitality they offered, but also for modeling the willing, proactive engagement that transforms conflicts to coexistence. As of last year, SVBR has built 15 fences – 14 in the Swan Valley and one in the Blackfoot – and this year we’ve already tallied two more. Please be in touch when you’re ready to help this number grow and take advantage of all that SVBR can offer. SVBR’s fences and resources are here for good neighbors like you, and of course, the bears.

 Even as Mike and Luke try to keep the tension around the challenging corners, their grins are apt proof that building a bear fence is also FUN!

Even as Mike and Luke try to keep the tension around the challenging corners, their grins are apt proof that building a bear fence is also FUN!

Key Contacts:

SVBR
Luke Lamar, Conservation Director – Swan Valley Connections
406-754-3137, luke@svconnections.org

Bear Conflicts
Tim Manley, Grizzly Bear Management Specialist/Conflict Resolution Coordinator – Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Office: 406-250-1265

Eric Wenum, Black Bear & Mountain Lion Specialist - Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Office: 406-250-0062