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Ovando bear mauling death prompts safety recommendations

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Posted at 9:01 AM, Jul 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-07 13:16:35-04

The mauling death of a bicyclist in Ovando last summer has prompted several safety recommendations to reduce the chances of another fatality. The limiting factor is whether people will follow the recommendations.

On Wednesday, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Executive Committee (IGBC) heard a summary of the final interagency Board of Review report on the Ovando grizzly bear fatality that occurred exactly one year ago. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley said the sad event has led to several recommendations from the 11-member board.

“This is something we do after every fatality,” Cooley said. “The whole process takes a long time – we have to wait for the DNA to come back. The main purpose of it is to look at it and learn from it. There’s a whole list of recommendations, especially for this incident, because it’s pretty complicated.”

Cooley briefly summarized the timeline of events that led up to the death of Leah Davis Lokan, 65, of Chico, California, who was bicycling across Montana with a group. They stopped in Ovando on July 5, and Lokan and Kim and Joe Cole set their tents up near the museum in the middle of town.

At 3 a.m., they heard a bear outside their tents and scared the bear away before returning to their sleeping bags. Loken had had food inside her tent, which she moved into a building, but she didn’t move the food that was in her bike saddlebags near her tent.

An hour later, the Coles again woke, this time to the noise of the bear attacking Loken, although Lokan didn’t yell. They made noise and deployed bear spray and then the bear left. The Coles ran for help. Responders found Lokan had been dragged partly out of her tent and sleeping bag but appeared to have died instantly due to a broken neck, according to the autopsy.

Investigators found two bags that previously contained and still smelled of dried blueberries in Lokan’s tent – she’d been using them to store toiletries.

A response team spent the next two days piecing together the possible movements of the grizzly, using citizen reports and motion camera photos. The bear is believed to have gotten into a number of chicken coops and improperly secured trash cans.

Wildlife Service agents shot the bear at midnight on July 8 after it returned to a chicken coop it had raided 18 hours earlier at Kleinschmidt Flat, five miles east of Ovando. The team confirmed it was the same bear using DNA and other forensic evidence.

“Our conclusion was this was a predatory attack by a habituated or food-conditioned bear. Predatory attacks are rare, but they do happen,” Cooley said. “Food and toiletries inside and near the tent – there was food in the bike bags that was not removed. And it was July 6 – there was July 4th celebrations. They had been cooking in that area. Those were all likely contributing factors.”

Cooley added that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) bear biologist Jamie Jonkel wondered if the young bear had spent a lot of time in Seeley Lake, because “it’s really messy and they don’t have a lot of things in place to keep attractants from bears.”

The recommendations fell into six categories: camping, communities, recreation events, responders, land agencies and bear spray. Several recommendations just reemphasize suggestions that have been around a long time, such as storing food properly when camping and locating tents away from cooking areas. Another recommends that food storage orders exist for all public lands, a suggestion that the IGBC has discussed for years but has struggled to carry out across various agencies.

The recommendations do include a few new ideas. For example, for organized events in bear country such as bicycle rides, special permits should require organizers to educate participants about bears and provide special food storage.

Because it took some time to get a response team together after the Ovando incident, the board recommends developing a protocol for assembling a response team and procedures for handling any bear suspected of an attack so that evidence can be preserved.

If a bear enters an area with tents, the board recommends that people not return to their tents and get into a hard-sided vehicle or building instead. Glacier National Park has often closed campgrounds to tent camping if a grizzly is in the area.

Finally, Lokan’s friends and family suggested that bear spray manufacturers add a whistle mechanism to the canisters so they make noise whenever bear spray is deployed. It might serve not only to startle the bear but also to alert other people that a bear encounter is occurring.

Another group of recommendations dealt with things communities could do to reduce the risk of human-bear conflict. They include enacting food and trash storage ordinances and participating in the Bear Smart program. Private campgrounds should also properly store food and garbage and post signs to caution people that bears could be near.

Joe and Kim Cole said they’d returned to Ovando recently and praised the town for all the changes it has made in the past year.

“The progress that community has made is incredible. The response to the needs of everybody was incredible,” Joe Cole said, emotion evident in his voice. “We wanted to share that what you’re trying to get – Ovando has put it all in place. They have bear canisters all over town. Tent camping is no longer allowed; you have to be in a four-sided building. They’re protecting the bicyclists, such as us, and everybody who goes through that town. And that goes back to what your program is stating and what you’re trying to do with everybody. We just want to thank you.”

Cooley added that Ovando was installing electric fencing around the ballfield so campers could use it.

In spite of Ovando’s hard lesson, the IGBC members struggled with a follow-on discussion of how to encourage communities to adopt the bear-smart policies that a subcommittee compiled into a manual. Education advisor Lori Roberts said the IGBC’s involvement could range from doing nothing to simply posting a manual on the IGBC website to providing funding and a coordinator. But since a coordinator position would require about $80,000, some balked at the cost.

Michael Burwash of the British Columbia Ministry of Forests said the British Columbia Bear Smart program, which is a model for others, was successful because it had a coordinator.

Idaho Fish and Game director and IGBC co-chair Ed Schriever spoke strongly against the IGBC getting highly involved. He pointed out that the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has a similar bear safety program.

“This is the proactive side of bear management. You have time,” Schriever said. “I’m still trying to figure out if the juice is worth the squeeze. Let’s say we take the lead, we get a coordinator, we fund this program, this IGBC certification, which has its own concerns for me. I can see people who come from who-knows-where who think ‘this is an IGBC certified community – I will be safe.’ It’s not a guarantee of safety.”

But others said the IGBC couldn’t encourage good bear management without considering and supporting the communities wanting to protect both humans and bears.

IGBC chair Jacqueline Buchanan said Ovando was a good example of a community that stepped up after a bad experience, and more communities need to be encouraged to do the same.

“To move forward with this work, we need to move forward with it. We’ve had the report from Hilary on the fatality and a lot of recommendations you came forward with centered on communication, community awareness and what the community can do to limit the attraction for bears,” Buchanan said. “From my view as a forest service representative, Region 2 is highly supportive of option 2 or 3. The bears, the numbers are increasing and the human population is increasing so that doesn’t make for a good mix without doing something.”

The members will make their decision on Friday.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.