Bears and Garbage

By Monica Fella

Letter to the Gallatin County Commissioners

December 4, 2001

Gallatin County Commission
311 W. Main Room #306
Bozeman, MT 59715

Dear Commissioners,

We are writing to request a meeting with you to discuss the serious problem involving bears and garbage that seems to have worsened in the county, particularly in Big Sky, Gallatin Canyon, and West Yellowstone. We believe that more could and should be done in Gallatin County to protect its natural treasures, black and threatened grizzly bears, and to ensure that public safety is maintained from unnecessary danger posed by food-habituated bears. Specifically, we ask the county to adopt a long overdue ordinance to require garbage be collected and stored in bear proof equipment.

As you are aware, the community of Big Sky lost two black bears this past summer and fall, and had many other human/bear conflicts due to poor sanitation practices and enforcement. This comes on the heels of grizzly mortalities and human-bear conflicts, which could have led to the involved persons being injured unnecessarily. In past years, Gallatin County has had the highest number of grizzly bear/human conflicts in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, accounting for over 40% of all conflicts in the designated 6 million acre recovery zone.

Recent liability cases on national forest lands have assessed millions of dollars against state and federal agencies for injury resulting from agencies knowingly exposing the public to food-habituated bears. The current situation represents not only an unnecessary threat to the safety of people, bears, and other wildlife, but also an unnecessary liability problem for the county.

Furthermore, many members of the Big Sky community were very upset about the loss of these bears due to human actions. Many residents worked very hard to ensure that their community and residencies were bear proof. One of the main problems identified pertains to waste collection. While residents were interested in properly disposing their waste, some residents complained that it was hard to do because there were no bear-proof dumpsters in their neighborhoods or at local businesses.

Progress is being made in some parts of the county, however. Frustrated with bears prowling Big Sky’s Hidden Village property all summer long, manager Kristin Ramirez decided to take matters into her own hands. The Hidden Village Home Owner’s Association has agreed to replace the 84 non-bear proof dumpsters on the property with bear proof ones. We applaud such efforts and seek to expand upon them, with your help and leadership.

By contrast, West Yellowstone has had several problems with bears, including the recent appearance of a grizzly in a dumpster only 100 feet from the school. Clearly West Yellowstone is not following the city’s own bear proof ordinance. The ordinance states, “All garbage, refuse, and any other food of any type whatsoever edible by bears shall be kept in bear-proof containers designed to make such containers resistant to entry by bears, or shall be otherwise made unavailable to bears, in the town (6.08.030).” This has resulted in the city being on the receiving end of a lawsuit due to the lack of compliance with the bear proof ordinance. So far the city has not complied with the schedule in the settlement of the case, which will invite further safety threats to citizens and unnecessary conflicts with bears.

In recent months, the Sierra Club, along with the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, has been working very hard in these communities to educate residents on how to bear proof their homes. It has been difficult to convince residents to secure their garbage when the city and county does not provide a secure method of collection.

In 2000, the Montana legislature passed a statute that “prohibits purposely or knowingly attracting bears supplemental feed attractant (food, garbage, or other attractants) or negligently failing to properly store attractants and attracting bears after having been previously warned (SB 104, 87-3-130, MCA).” The county’s lack of an ordinance requiring bear proof garbage containers contradicts this statute. A simple solution to this dilemma would be to enact a countywide ordinance that requires all garbage to be stored, collected, and disposed using bear proof methods.

We request a meeting to discuss a resolution to this dangerous situation, and the prospects of adopting a countrywide garbage ordinance. Such a measure would go far to ensuring the safety of Gallatin County residents and the well being of its magnificent wildlife. Hopefully, this matter can be resolved over the winter months, ensuring that next summer will be safer, both for the bears and the people of Gallatin County.

We will call at the end of this week to schedule a time that is convenient to meet for all interested parties. We look forward to working with you on this issue.


Monica Fella
Sierra Club Grizzly Bear Project
P.O. Box 1290
Bozeman, MT 59771-1290

on behalf of
Sierra Club
Predator Conservation Alliance
Greater Yellowstone Coalition
Audubon Society
Montana River Action Group
Montana Wilderness Association


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