Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear management specialists meet every year in mid-March to prepare for "bear season." About that same time, male grizzly bears are stirring, soon to emerge from their dens.
This natural cycle affects Montanans too—it is why April 1 is the target date for bringing in winter bird feeders and seed, cleaning yards and collecting and disposing of bear attractants that have accumulated over the winter.
"People ask me the best way to prevent encounters and possible conflicts with bears," said Jamie Jonkel, FWP bear management specialist in Missoula. "Cleaning up potential food attractants around residences and ranches very early in the spring is the single most important step in spring."
Jonkel said hungry bears just emerging from hibernation are powerfully attracted by livestock carcasses, frozen and thawing garbage stored in trailers for the winter, grain and feed, and pet food left outdoors.
Tim Manley, a FWP Region 1 grizzly bear management specialist, urges residents in the area he serves to be vigilant about the April 1 clean up date.
"The earlier in April residents clean up around their homes and secure food attractants the better results they will have," he said. "A deep mountain snowpack or early spring snowfall can push hungry bears coming out of hibernation into the valley bottoms in search of nourishment.
In 2012, Manley is hoping to avoid the high level of bear management activity required in 2011.
"Last year there were 32 individual grizzly bears captured a total of 47 times for management reasons in FWP Region 1 in northwest Montana May 16—Nov. 21," Manley reports. "The average number of grizzly bear captures is 17 a year.
Kim Annis, an FWP Region 1 grizzly bear management specialist out of Libby, reports that many of the conflicts experienced last year in northwestern Montana involved bears getting into chicken coops.
It seems a growing number of people are keeping chickens, and unsecured chickens will attract coyotes, raccoons, skunks, domestic dogs, coyotes and bobcats, as well as bears.
FWP bear managers strongly urge anyone raising poultry in western Montana to use quality electric fencing around the chicken pen and coop.
"I loan and set up electric fencing for residents because it is an effective way to prevent conflicts with bears and other wildlife. When people have a chance to see it work they often decide to install their own," Annis said.
This spring Annis is updating the guide on electric fencing how-to's that is accessible on the FWP website at fwp.mt.gov  on the Be Bear Aware page.
"This year I am also trying to organize a volunteer fruit picking group that would be willing to assist homeowners that are unable to pick their own fruit," she said. "Fruit trees are another bear attractant and a major source of conflict in this area."
Annis also reports that the Kootenai National Forest has signed a mandatory food storage order for the entire forest, putting it on a par with other National Forest lands with grizzly bears.
"Lincoln County is working hard at eliminating bears from their garbage transfer sites by putting dumpsters behind electric fencing," Annis said. "They are working on a site along Highway 2 South of Libby this year and also have new bear-resistant garbage containers at the Kootenai Falls recreation area."
Mike Madel, FWP grizzly bear management specialist in Choteau, said this is the 26th consecutive year of grizzly bear management within the east portion of the Northern Continental Divide Grizzly Bear Ecosystem.
Although the number of grizzly bear conflicts varies year to year, incidents have decreased by about 30 percent from 1986 to 2005.
"The main change is that since 2005, black bear conflicts have remained low and relatively stable, as grizzly bear incidents have steadily increased to about 25 to 30 conflicts a year," Madel said.
Madel estimates the 900 plus grizzly bears in the NCDE population are increasing at a rate of about three to four percent a year. As a result, he anticipates seeing bear conflicts arise in new areas as bear disperse eastward along the Marias, Teton, and Sun River drainages.
He reports a documented decline in bear/human conflicts as a result of FWP's conflict prevention activities. The most effective methods have been electric fence systems to protect bee yards and sheep bedding grounds; randomly redistributing livestock carcasses each spring; bear-resistant bins in communities and on ranches; and educational programs in schools and communities.
"We have good working relationships with the big ranches and small communities in this area," Madel said. "Now, as grizzly bears expand further and re-colonize more of their traditional habitat we need to connect with new communities including Shelby, Simms and Fort Benton."
One large-scale conflict prevention project is a partnership agreement with the Miller Colony, located north of Choteau, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and FWP to cost-share and assist the Colony in building a permanent electric fence around an expansive domestic sheep pasture east of the grizzly bear recovery area.
"Sheep depredations have increased during recent years in this area and this project will help minimize future conflicts with bears and wolves. Plans are for the Miller Colony to complete the fence project this coming summer. It is the largest permanent electric fence, nearly three square miles, built in Montana.
In early spring, Kevin Frey, FWP bear specialist in Bozeman, is especially concerned about potential bear conflicts with the state's enthusiastic shed antler hunters.
Frey urges shed antler hunters to be alert for bears that might scavenge carcasses found on wildlife management areas and other public lands this time of year.
"During 2011, there were fewer grizzly and black bear conflicts overall than in 2010, but backcountry encounters with grizzly bears were the highest on record," Frey said.
Frey urges outdoor enthusiasts to take steps to minimize surprise encounters with bears. Staying alert, making noise while hiking, and traveling with others all help reduce the chance of a surprise encounter with a bear.
"These days, bear spray also needs to be a routine part of our overall outdoor garb when we head out to recreate in bear country," Frey said.
"With early spring temperatures and less snow, emerging bears may quickly move to lower elevations this year looking for areas of early green-up," Frey said. "Please remove or secure all potential food attractants to reduce early season bear conflicts."
In FWP Region 2, bear manager Jamie Jonkel has long fostered public education, waste management improvements and community involvement to reduce human/bear conflicts.
“We have actually seen a decrease in grizzly bear conflicts since the late 1990s, largely due to proactive management and various watershed working groups and local communities that have done public education and reduced bear attractants in their areas," Jonkel said.
While a reduction in grizzly conflicts in the Blackfoot Valley is good news, Jonkel anticipates new conflicts where grizzly bears are re-colonizing in traditional grizzly habitat to the south.
"As grizzlies show up in the Little Blackfoot Valley and upper reaches of the Clark Fork River Basin, they will be tempted to go where black bear, raccoons and domestic dogs are already getting into garbage today," he said. "FWP Region 2 is very interested in working with landowners and communities in these areas to expand bear-aware practices. A little prevention significantly reduces the odds of drawing in a grizzly bear."
Jonkel is expanding his educational activities to keep pace with the expanding grizzly population. He recently met with residents of the Georgetown Lake Area and a watershed working group in Granite County.
For details on how to “Be Bear Aware” and avoid conflicts with grizzly and black bears this year, go to FWP’s website at fwp.mt.gov  , click on the Fish & Wildlife page, then Living With Wildlife for the Be Bear Aware  page.