Saga of Monica and her cubs ends tragically

Monica with three cubs, June 8, 2020 - W. K. Walker
Monica with three cubs, June 8, 2020 – W. K. Walker

Here’s the latest from Tim Manley on the tragic saga of Monica and her three cubs. It was posted to Facebook in the early morning hours of September 6th. Scroll to the end of this post for a photo gallery¬† . . .

Update on the grizzly bears… well, it was a difficult week. One that I would rather not repeat. I have read some of the comments and I understand everyone’s concerns and feelings. I think it is important to put a few things into context so everyone knows what transpired.

I am not going to mention names or locations but I think most people have heard about some of the locations where these incidents occurred. We tried to prevent further conflicts from occurring, but as you will see, this family group of bears were very food-conditioned and the property damage was extensive and knowing what they were going to do next was difficult to predict.

The adult female grizzly bear was known as Bear #418 or as we called her “Monica”. Based on the annual cementum of her premolar, her age was 20 years old. She was originally captured in 2004 as a sub-adult on the east side of the mountains at the site of a calf depredation. They didn’t know if she was the bear that killed the calf but the decision was made to relocate her to the west side of Glacier Park. She remained in the North Fork for 17 years and spent a majority of her time in Glacier Park, but denned in Hay Creek and on Cyclone.

During those 17 years she was captured twice in culvert traps set for research. She wore the radio collars for a few years before they dropped off. During those 17 years, we documented her having at least 4 litters. Two litters of two and two litters of three.

\While she often spent time near homes and was observed by residents, she did not cause conflicts that we knew about until the fall of 2018 when she had just two of her three yearlings with her. The initial reports we had were that the family group had ripped into a yurt, damaged two vehicles, got into unsecured garbage, and had pushed on a trailer. The observers reported it was the two yearlings that were causing the conflicts. We captured both the yearlings and the decision was made to lethally remove them. Monica was wearing a radio collar from June of 2017, so we were able to monitor her movements. We did get a report that another car had been damaged after the yearlings had been removed and Monica was in that general area. We also had a report of a grizzly getting into a Kodiak bear resistant container in Polebridge. After that, there were no reports of conflicts.

Monica dropped her radio collar south of the Home Ranch Bottoms in late 2018. During 2019, we didn’t have any reports of conflicts and she didn’t have any cubs that year.

In 2020, we had a few reports and photos of a female grizzly with 3 cubs of the year in the Hay Creek area. We assumed it was Monica. We didn’t have any reports of conflicts, just observations during 2020. We asked residents to make the family group move out of yards when they came close to houses.

The spring and early summer of 2021 were pretty quiet except I did get a report of grizzly bears getting into a garage to get garbage above Polebridge. In late August, that changed. The first report I had was of a family group on a porch in Polebridge knocking over a bbq grill. That was followed up by a report of the family group getting into two Unbearable Bin garbage containers for two nights in a row. The clips on the cans weren’t functioning and I removed those cans and replaced them with Kodiak cans. You can see in the video the family group returned that evening and checked out the garbage cans. I talked to some of the residents and reminded them of the importance of not leaving any attractants out and to contact me if the bears returned.

The next night, the bears were in Polebridge and got into a horse trailer that was used to store garbage. When I arrived, the owner had cleaned up the garbage and removed the horse trailer. I put up 2 cameras to see what bears showed up. You can see on the video that the family group are on video and that 2 great pyrenees dogs are barking at them. The bears didn’t seem to be too concerned about the dogs, but they did leave (I think people need to remember that grizzly bears in the North Fork are used to dealing with coyotes and wolves, so a couple of barking dogs may not be a big deterrent if there is a food reward to be had). There were also reports of shots being fired in the middle of the night on the south side of Polebridge but I could never figure out where.

Prior to returning to where the garbage trailer had been, the bears were up on Polebridge bench and had gotten into a pickup topper and got a food reward. The windows had been broken out and there was food and garbage in the truck based on the reports of neighboring campers. The bears were very persistent and continued to get into the truck after it was moved a short distance. The owners of the truck left around midnight so I didn’t get a chance to talk to them or see the vehicle.

The bears returned to where the truck had been broken into around 1930. I had just gotten back to town. The reporting party said the bears wouldn’t leave. I contacted Regi Altop at Glacier, he went up to haze the bears but didn’t see them. A couple of other local residents responded but the bears had left. I subsequently got reports of them at several different neighbors. One location they attempted to get into a garage to get garbage. They returned to where the truck had been and damaged a car that had no food or garbage in it.

After these reports, we set two culvert traps on private land. One up on the bench and another one south of Polebridge. The horse trailer was replaced with an enclosed cargo trailer for storing garbage. The bears returned that night and there were bear prints on the cargo trailer but they didn’t get in.

On August 31, we captured one of the yearlings south of Polebridge. We had the family group on camera, so we know it was the correct bear. It was a 140lb female and we held it in the culvert trap to try and keep the family group there. We brought in 3 additional traps that night.

On 9/1, we got a report that grizzly bears had broken into an unoccupied camp trailer on property near Home Ranch Bottoms. The bears had done extensive damage to the trailer and got a big food reward. We moved a trap to that location and kept the other traps just south of Polebridge where the first yearling was still being held. On the morning of the 2nd, we had captured the second yearling. A 119 lb female. Originally, in discussions with the USFWS, we thought about relocating the yearlings and removing the adult female. After we saw the damage to the camp trailer, vehicles, and the large amount of food rewards all the bears had received, the decision was made to remove the entire family group. We drugged and used euthanasia solution to kill the first two yearlings.

On 9/3, we captured the third yearling at the camp trailer. A 134lb female. The adult female went to the culvert traps but didn’t go all the way in and pull on the bait. We put down the third yearling.

The afternoon of 9/3, we had three culvert traps at the camp trailer and also set 3 foot snares for the adult female. Since she wasn’t going in the culvert traps and the 3 yearlings had been captured, it was safe to set the foot snares and not have to worry about capturing a yearling in a foot snare and having to drug and handle it at the site with the adult female loose.

Monica – A sad ending….

Monica was captured in one of the foot snares the night of 9/3. On the morning of the 4th, we drugged and then killed her with the euthanasia solution. We had confirmed it was her based on the microchip. She was in fair shape, a little thin. She weighed 265lbs. Her teeth were worn down but what you would expect for a 20 year old bear. She was lactating, so the yearlings were probably still nursing on her. We find that nursing is an energetic drain on some of the females and they may do things when they cubs or yearlings that they normally wouldn’t do…. like seek out garbage or break into vehicles or structures.

I have said it many times before, killing bears is the worst part of my job. We try to avoid having to do it but when bears become very food-conditioned and start begin causing property damage and breaking into vehicles, trailers, and cabins, those bears are removed.

I know that there are a lot of discussions about how to prevent any more bear conflicts in the future. We have spent a lot of time in the NFK talking to landowners and visitors about preventing conflicts. The community has sponsored two bear fairs, groups have developed and distributed information about living in bear country, we have given presentations to NFLA and NFPA. I have attended and given updates at most of the NF Interlocal meetings. We have loaned bear resistant Kodiak cans to businesses and some residents.

We have seen the same thing happen with other bears in the NFK that I ended up removing. It tends to start with bears hanging around in peoples yards feeding on the green grass and clover. Bears eating ground squirrels that are shot and left in yards. Some people are still putting out bird feeders that bears are getting into. We have/had people that intentionally feed bears. That teaches them to come to houses to look for food. The more comfortable they become around houses, the more chance they will find garbage or pet food that has been left out. They then get that search image and will start testing places that are normally safe to keep some food or garbage… like in a vehicle, trailer, yurt, or garage. The next step is unoccupied cabins and houses. It is a slippery slope for bears and it usually doesn’t end well.

Over the years I have removed these bears from the North Fork:

    • Star and her two male cubs… repeated conflicts, getting into freezer and property damage to trailer.
    • Old adult male in Trail Cr. Broke into 19 unoccupied cabins.
    • Adult male at Trail Cr. got into coolers at hunting camp.
    • Patti got into a garage and broke into 3 camp trailers.
    • Two of Monica’s yearlings for garbage and damaging vehicles and yurt.
    • Monica and her three yearlings garbage, damage to vehicles and trailer.

I am more than happy to answer questions and visit with people about preventing bear conflicts. You can contact me on Facebook or tim.manley@mt.gov or 406-250-1265.

Photo gallery (will try to add videos soon):

Monica – Damage to car. No food or garbage in the car
Monica – Damage to one of the cars. There was no food or garbage in this vehicle
Monica – Putting down the first two yearlings
Monica – Putting down the third yearling
Monica – Unoccupied camp trailer the family group broke into. Extensive food rewards
Monica and two of her yearlings checking out Kodiak cans
Monica captured in foot snare
Monica’s teeth… twenty years old