Life and Times of Rainy
In the summer of 2009 Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks trapped a female grizzly bear for research. She was fitted with a collar and released. Little did they know that this grizzly’s story would continue to raise awareness about preventing/minimizing bear human conflicts on the landscape.
In the spring of 2009, a pair of grizzly bears were seen gallivanting around Seeley Lake, MT. Spring is breeding season for bears and it was determined that this was a breeding pair. This pair frequented people’s yards, crossed highways during the day and spent time in open valleys. The community started to buzz about these two bears and their antics. The male was nicknamed “Scarhip” due to a large visible scar on his left hip. Scarhip was deemed a bit of a “bad boy”. Frequently exploring sheds and pulling down bird feeders. On one day in the summer of 2009 researchers trapped two grizzlies at close, but separate, trap sites. It was Rainy and Scarhip! It seemed these two were indeed sticking close together. Both grizzlies were fitted with collars and released and went their separate ways for the remainder of the season.
Scarhip wore his collar from June- July until it fell off north of Seeley Lake. Once the data was downloaded Scarhip’s movements were revealed. He had definitely been near homes and even spent two days hunkered down between Seeley Lake Elementary School and the high school. During the days he bedded down and avoided people but at night, he strolled about town eating out of garbage cans. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks considered trapping and relocating Scarhip. Unfortunately, he was not able to have this second chance. In the fall of 2009, a hunter mistakenly took him for a black bear, shot and killed him.
In the meantime, Rainy stayed mostly out of trouble and did things wild bears do. In the late fall of 2009, she dug a high-elevation den in the Bob Marshall. In the spring of 2010 biologists flew in a helicopter to try and locate her and to everyone’s delight they found her and she had two cubs! Due to high snowpack and low food availability at the den site Rainy quickly took her cubs down into the valley. In June and early July 2010, Rainy stuck around Placid Lake eating natural foods such as grasses and glacier lilies.
Then on the evening of July 14th for no known reason, Rainy’s behavior suddenly changed. During this one evening she was on the porches of at least five homes pulling down bird feeders, eating grain and knocking over garbage cans. This behavior could have started due to food stress exhibited by a female bear nursing cubs or maybe she opportunistically found a food “reward” at someone’s house like a bird feeder or full garbage can. Bears that discover these anthropogenic foods will often return or look for similar items in other areas. Preventing bears access to these items is key to minimizing this type of behavior. Rainy’s story would be much different if she had never been able to discover these types of attractants.
However, given her behavior Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks determined they would attempt to capture Rainy and her cubs. Capturing Rainy was not easy and soon her behavior escalated and became potentially dangerous as she continued taking her cubs up onto porches and at one residence attempted to get in the door while the family was home.
There are other risks to bears that must navigate developed areas including roads, railways, and human encounters. While Rainy was running with her cubs from house to house she was crossing busy Highway 83 and soon the inevitable happened and one of her cubs was hit and killed on the highway. Rainy stayed in the area, seemingly looking for her cub for a couple of days and then moved on. Shortly after this incident Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks was successful in trapping Rainy and her remaining cub and given her level of behavior the decision was made to not relocate Rainy into the wild. So the race was on to find her an alternate home in a zoo. Tulsa Zoo happened to be remodeling their grizzly exhibit and said they would take Rainy and her cub.
The zoologist drove up and took Rainy and her remaining cub “Monte” back to the zoo in the summer of 2010. Rainy and Monte were doing well and everyone at the zoo quickly became attached to the roly-poly Monte. The community of Seeley Lake was buzzing about the fate of these bears they had all come to know. Residents began to effectively store their garbage in a bear-resistant manner, people pulled in bird feeders and neighbors began discussing ways to avoid this in the future. There continues to be a lot of work to do but Rainy’s story seemed to shift the focus of the discussion from removing bears to what people can do to prevent conflicts like this from occurring in the future.
Sadly, Monte developed an untreatable fungal infection and was humanely euthanized in Oct. 2011. Rainy has settled in her new habitat at the zoo’s Robert J. LaFortune WildLIFE Trek complex. She has a pool and a glass viewing window where she interacts with the guests, sometimes by slapping the glass as they walk by. She enjoys enrichment, but she’s a picky eater. If she does not want to eat something, she scoots it away and sits on it. The Zoo’s staff truly enjoys working with Rainy.
Since Rainy’s time at the zoo, she has participated in research projects to help prevent human-bear conflict in the wild. In the Ozarks, they have problems with black bears that take deer corn out of feeding devices. Through a partnership with Oklahoma State University, Rainy helped test feeding devices to see if they could withstand her strength to determine what modifications needed to be made. Researchers also wanted to determine how quickly bears would give up on the devices, so they documented her behavior as she interacted with the device. Of course, Rainy didn’t give up on the feeding device until it was empty, providing researchers with helpful information.
By sharing Rainy’s story we hope to further the understanding that there are ways for bears and people to share the landscape.
Photos credits: Image 1, 3, 4 by Jenny Schmidt; image 2 by Erica Holeman.