Black Bear Hit on I-90 Leaves Orphaned Cubs

By PAUL QUENEAU

Driving my sons to school Monday morning along I-90, a driver in front of me suddenly pulled off on the shoulder between East Missoula and the Van Buren exit. Then I saw the reason: A good sized black bear lay on its side dead next to the highway like so many animals before it, having been caught on the wrong side of the 6-foot fence built to keep wildlife on Mount Jumbo off the highway.

But the story then went from bad to worse. After dropping my boys off, I went back to take some photos of the bear before heading on to my job as conservation editor of Bugle magazine at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

RMEF works across the country on creating safer road crossings for wildlife, so images of the death toll of America’s roadways come in handy. I snapped some shots, then phoned Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to report the incident. I talked to bear guru Jamie Jonkel, who told me even more sorrowful news. The bear was a sow with twocubs.

He said around 6 a.m. the motorist who struck her did the responsible thing and called it in, reporting that he’d spotted two cubs near the site of the collision, both as-yet uninjured.

I ran into Jonkel on Monday evening at Big Sky High School where I was instructing a hunter’s education class on elk. He said reports of the cubs had been coming in from all over the place that day on both sides of the highway between Van Buren and Bonner.

FWP staff attempted to capture the animals, but the cubs eluded their efforts. Jonkel said the last report of the cubs was late Tuesday as the cubs crossed I-90 again near East Missoula. “They are in there somewhere,” Jonkel says. “But it really is a deathtrap. They may still get hit.” He said the bears would be released deep in the wilds if captured, as the local animal rehab center had unfortunately closed.

And those cubs aren’t alone. Jonkel said in recent days he’s gotten reports of two orphaned cubs up Pattee Canyon, another up Grant Creek and one near St. Regis for a total of six black bear cubs out on their own. Bears are struggling this fall following a meager berry crop, a year of “food failure” as Jonkel dubs it.

The situation is no better for grizzlies. Jonkel said there is evidence of grizzlies in western Montana abandoning cubs for lack of food. “This kind of food shortage happens once every seven years or so,” Jonkel said. “It’s a sad deal.”

He did say that there is still a chance that a wildlife crossing might still be constructed at the East Missoula exit and on Bandmann Flats near the mouth of Marshall canyon if enough people got behind the idea. I’ve witnessed countless deer hit along that stretch and one panicked whitetail ping-ponging down the wrong side of the fence as I got on the highway. I’ll never forget the terrible look in her eyes.

Perhaps now is the time to get serious about helping these animals find a way across.

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Paul Queneau is an avid outdoor recreationist, naturalist and hunter. He works as conservation editor of Bugle magazine at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, where he writes about, photographs, edits and films wildlife. See and read more of his work on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s website and Paul’s photo portfolio.