Hiking in the Yukon. Image: Pat Morrow
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Keeping Bears Moving in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley

With support from Y2Y, University of Montana grad student Brittani Johnson is finding new ways to keep bears connected while still protecting livestock.

With support from Y2Y, University of Montana grad student Brittani Johnson is finding new ways to keep bears connected while still protecting livestock.

If you travel south from the Montana portion of the trans-border Crown of the Continent Ecosystem—a vital trans-border region where animals roam between the U.S. and Canada—you’ll eventually reach a mixed landscape of public-private land, with upland forests butting up against vast cattle ranches.

Brittani Johnson
Brittani Johnson

Here in the High Divide, a priority linkage zone for Y2Y, you’ll be virtually surrounding by parks and protected areas—with the Crown to the north, Yellowstone to the east and Idaho’s Salmon-Selway-Bitterroot to the west. But you may not even realize it, given the public roads and private fences that section off the landscape as far as the eye can see.

It’s a predicament that many bears will find themselves in as well, which is why conservationists hope to ensure these roads, fences and other forms of development across the landscape pose as minor an obstacle for wildlife movement as possible.

That same goal drives the research of Brittani Johnson, a Montana State University grad student who aims to help farmers and conservationists find the most effective, and least invasive, methods for co-existing with grizzlies and black bears. Y2Y supported Johnson’s research with a 2015 Sarah Baker Memorial Grant, an annual award offered to post-secondary students engaging in studies that positively affect wildlife and ecosystems throughout the Yellowstone to Yukon region.

Bear and Fence
This black bear is shocked on the nose by the fence. Photo: Wildlife Habitat Ecology Lab at Montana State University

“Grizzly bear numbers have been slowly increasing in these areas, coming from the Flathead Valley and Rocky Mountain Front,” says Johnson. And with those visiting carnivores come a host of issues for farmers, such as attacks on livestock and crop damage. Landowners typically use electric fences to keep bears out of calving areas and bee yards, but questions still remain about potential negative effects on wildlife movement.

“Our research looks at the impacts these electric fences have on grizzly and black bear movement, and whether they will cut them off from critical habitat and migration corridors,” says Johnson. She’s hoping the research project will lead to the development of temporary or permanent electric fences that allow passage for bears, while still hindering unwanted entry into agricultural areas.

To test the effects of electric fences, Johnson and other researchers set up multiple enclosures on private lands, which are baited to ensure bears come to visit. The researchers turn the electric fences on and off in regular intervals, and use trail cameras to document how the bears interact with the fences.

“It will help us answer a lot of questions,” says Johnson. “Will the bears avoid an area after being shocked, or will they come back after some time has passed? Will they cross the fence when the electricity is turned off? And will the fences somehow alter the bears’ annual movement patterns?”

Johnson’s research, which wraps up with final data analysis this fall and winter will shed new light on an issue we currently know little about. And that’s the first essential step in ensuring wildlife can roam these landscapes forever.