It's always sad when biologists with Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks have to euthanize a misbehaving bruin when it becomes what's called a "problem bear". One that's been "food-conditioned" and is posing a danger to people and property in Missoula. 

But it seems especially tragic when that conflict could have been prevented by simple steps like locking your car doors.

And FWP's bear experts say it's those simple steps that we need to practice as we become "bear aware" and help prevent incidents like what happened recently in Missoula's Rattlesnake neighborhood, where a black bear got into several cars, causing thousands of dollars in damage.

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Bear break-ins cause thousands in damage

FWP received more than a dozen reports of a bear breaking into vehicles around the Rattlesnake, looking for food as it followed its instinct to pack on the calories before hibernation.

The bear was finally caught in the act when it broke into a Honda SUV, but triggered the door locks and couldn't get back out. The owners managed to open the door from a distance, freeing the bear. But not before the entire car was trashed.

FWP bear management specialist Jamie Jonkel tells me the bear learned how to open the doors and was just randomly going through cars. Two cars had heavy damage when the bear got locked inside, and one was declared a total loss.

FWP trapped the bear later and Jonkel said "sadly we had to put that little bear down." There was just too much concern that it would keep causing problems.

Montana FWP photo
Montana FWP photo

People allow bears to learn bad habits

Jonkel says it's "actually fairly common" for bear to learn how to open car doors, but then not be able to get back out. He says FWP has had similar incidents in recent years in both Missoula and Seeley Lake. And he says there's one human mistake that starts it.

"Probably starts with someone leaving goodies inside with the windows open and goes from there," Jonkel explains.

Leaving behind road snacks isn't bear aware

So addition to the "bear aware" steps Missoula authorities have been recommending in recent years, like securing your garbage cans, cleaning backyard grills, and cleaning up around fruit trees, you can add one more thing to the list.

That's keeping food out of your car when it's parked overnight, especially if you live in the newly-expanded "bear buffer zones", where wildlife managers are seeing an increasing number of bear conflicts.

And don't assume just because the car is closed that a clever bear doesn't know how to get inside.

For more "bear aware" tips, visit the Missoula Bears webpage.

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