Bears and garbage By Steve Primm

Some combinations are never a good idea:  Fireworks and dry grass. Texting and driving. Whiskey and chainsaws. And, bears and garbage. Just like other bad combinations, bears-plus-garbage always leads to an unhappy ending: potential human-bear encounters, dead bears, upset people. 


Trash strewn around a Montana dumpster after a visit from a grizzly bear

Bears are big animals, and they’re driven to find high-calorie foods so they can live off their fat reserves through the long winter. They quickly discover that garbage is easy to find and predictably abundant, which means they don’t have to expend a lot of energy to get a full belly.


The downside is, garbage-eating bears end up losing their wariness of people.  Instead of foraging in the hills for natural foods, these bears focus their efforts on developed areas.  They usually end up destroying property, sometimes hurting people.  They lead short, troublesome lives.

Many communities across rural Montana use garbage transfer stations to serve remote areas, and many of these sites are in or near occupied grizzly range. Bear biologists have warned that some of these stations are at risk of creating bear conflicts with people, and already there have been regular visits from bears at some sites.

In recent years, county governments, concerned citizens, bear managers, and conservation groups have put thought and resources into coming up with ways to keep bears out of our transfer stations. Any solution must be convenient and safe for citizens and staff, effective at excluding bears, and affordable.  Thanks to generous private contributors and federal programs, it’s possible to find solutions that don’t strain county budgets.


An electrified drive-over Bearguard in Banff National Park

From the resident’s point of view, easy access to containers is a priority. One solution in some counties has been to staff each transfer station, and to close the site when attendants aren’t there. Still other counties have unmanned stations, and until they make the leap to staffing their sites, the most straightforward solution for high-conflict sites would be to enclose it using bear-resistant fencing. Durable, drive-over electrified grids, powered by an electric fence energizer, would allow 24-7 access to users, but would keep bears and other mammals out.


Some have expressed concern about using electric fencing in a public setting. Modern electric fence delivers a pulsed, split-second shock that non-injuriously repels animals. It has a solid track record of safety. Canada’s Banff National Park has long used electrified cattle guards at conflict-prone campgrounds to keep bears out, yet allow visitors easy access. With smart design and adequate signage, we can minimize safety risks to all but those who would choose to get themselves shocked – which in almost all cases, would be non-injurious anyway.


Grizzly bear tracks going up the ladder of a dumpster in Montana

We have the tools and we have the money to keep bears out of our waste transfer sites while maintaining convenience. Waiting until we have more conflicts is borrowing trouble:  once bears learn to forage for garbage, they spend more time around our homes and communities, and are more prone to expensive and dangerous conflicts with us. Letting bears have easy access to garbage creates a public safety hazard, burdens wildlife managers with avoidable problems, and kills bears.


The notion that keeping bears “fed” at the transfer stations will keep them away from our communities isn’t sound:  bears will go looking for garbage wherever their noses lead them. And, county workers do a great job of hauling garbage off those sites regularly, so a hungry garbage bear is going to find the dump pantry empty every few days, and head into the nearest town or subdivision for his supper instead.

We’ve known for at least 50 years that garbage is bad for bears and the combination a risk for people. While meeting this challenge will take work, we have the tools and the resources to make it happen. For the sake of public safety and responsible stewardship, we need to keep bears out of our trash.

This garbage transfer station site in Southwest MT shows how easily people can fall into the garbage container (and they do), and how easily bears gain access to garbage. The top cage is only closed when the garbage is transported.
This garbage transfer station site in Southwest MT shows how easily people can fall into the garbage container (and they do), and how easily bears gain access to garbage. The top cage is only closed when the garbage is transported.