Bill McIntosh gathered his family around the ranch kitchen table and told the story of the grizzly, unable to hold back tears.
“If you see how these bears are killing these things, they were in agony,” he said. “The last steer we found, his neck was broken. His nose was smashed to pieces.”
Late this spring, Bill and his son, Gib McIntosh, traveled up a creek one evening and saw a grizzly bear. Momentarily, the bear circled the woods and returned to its prey – one of their yearling steers.
The grizzly huffed as it descended the slope, closing in on the two men.
“Too close,” Gib said, just before he and his dad walked out of there.
The bear was believed to have killed two yearling steers in late May, and the United States Wildlife Services confirmed that a grizzly bear killed three other yearling steers in the ranch earlier in the spring.
Bill had only seen a few grizzlies in his past life in Avon and had never had a problem before.
His ranch home in the community of Avon in southwestern Montana has served the McIntosh family for six generations, and they still ride horses to check cattle. On their combination of private leased land and Forest Service land, the family manages about 900 head of cattle on some 10,000 acres, so bear mitigation is no small feat.
As bears expand into new territories, many ranchers find themselves working with government wildlife managers and nonprofit groups to devise non-lethal solutions to protect bears and livestock.
The stakes are high for bears and ranchers.
For bears, it may be necessary to cross the breeding valley to connect populations. For the McIntosh family, protecting their livestock isn’t just a matter of business.
“There’s a point where people think, oh, well, you’re just looking at dollars — you’re going to kill them anyway,” said Jill McIntosh, Bill’s wife. “No. We take care of them. We’ve been with them since the moment they hit the ground.
“And in addition to the cattle, those victims were within a mile of my house,” Gib added. “I have two little boys. (My brother has) three little girls. It’s something we never worried about when we were kids. going for a run and being gone all afternoon. And you’d be a bit nervous to let your kids do this now.
Bill didn’t suspect the grizzlies at first.
He found three calves chewed up in early spring, one after another. With each dead calf he grew more suspicious, but at first he didn’t assume a predator was responsible. Coyotes were on the carcasses, but there was nothing unusual about that.
Two of the calves were found near the pit where the ranch traditionally piled carcasses. Some dead animals are almost inevitable on a large ranch like the McIntosh family.
In case bloating was the cause, the family tried changing the diet. Finally, Bill said a U.S. Wildlife Service employee measured the bite marks on the third kill and determined it was a grizzly bear.
At the same time, a bear was discovered searching for carcasses in the pit. After several attempts, the United States Wildlife Services and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials, using a piece of roadkill deer as bait, successfully lured a grizzly into a nearby culvert trap.
By all accounts, this 429-pound male bear was docile inside the trap. The bear was moved to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and has remained there as the heart of the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem ever since.
Later, the McIntosh family decided that the bear was probably not responsible for the first three depredations.
“I think we just caught an innocent bystander,” Jill said.
“He was just coming to have breakfast in the pit,” Bill added. “I really don’t think that bear was a problem at all.”
The McIntosh family removed the cow carcasses from the pit – four cows that had rolled onto their backs and died, and a few dead calves – as advised by wildlife managers.
There wasn’t much mystery with the second bear.
After Bill and Gib retreated, Gib and his brother Lou McIntosh returned to retrieve the carcass and the bear was still nearby. Wildlife managers and the McIntosh family then discovered that the bear had killed another steer. Using this steer as bait, the bear was trapped the next day, his tracks traced a direct line through the snow into the trap.
The 6-year-old, 411-pound male was not happy, to say the least. The bear was euthanized on May 24 and the McIntosh family has not had a bear problem since.
During last spring’s grizzly bear action on the McIntosh Ranch, a bear suspected of committing depredations was euthanized by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks staff, and another was moved. Grizzlies have been spotted in Avon from time to time, but this year has seen more activity than normal.
Avon is just south of Ovando and Helmville, where grizzly bears are more common and conflict prevention efforts are more advanced. An Ovando-based collaboration called Blackfoot Challenge formed a range-rider program to patrol ranches and avoid potential predator-livestock conflicts by alerting producers. The Blackfoot-Clearwater Valley also has a carcass collection program in place.
Rory Trimbo, FWP grizzly specialist in Anaconda, is working with the town of Deer Lodge to establish a composting site to facilitate the disposal of carcasses, which would be a benefit to the Avon area.
He also works with Avon ranchers, both to avoid conflict and to study the bears.
After the second bear was captured at McIntosh Ranch, Trimbo set up a scrub post with barbed wire to see if he could get hair samples for DNA testing. This can establish what population a bear is from, its gender, and other information.
Bill checked the message for Trimbo, and they found some good hair samples.
“Avon is kind of new territory for the many bears that show up, so that’s good news,” Trimbo said.
Wildlife managers have counted at least four active grizzly bears in Avon this year, roughly the same number of yearling steers the McIntosh family lost. Based on reports from other breeders, there may be more grizzlies than this.
The Montana Livestock Loss Board paid Bill $1,084 for each of the five McIntosh steers killed.
“That was awesome. I appreciate that,” Bill said. “But $1,084 — most of it went into what we had in them when they were killed.”
The family bred the yearlings for an entire year, and reportedly sold them this fall. Subtracting feed and labor, he said the steers were worth much more than he was paid for them. Margins are tight in the beef sector.
This year is looking a little better, Bill said, but beef prices — what ranchers get, not what people pay at the store — have come down.
“The last two drops, if you broke even, you did pretty well,” he said.
Still, the McIntosh family is making adjustments to protect themselves and their livestock.
“I bought bear spray for the first time in my life,” Gib said with a laugh.
Bill changed where he grazes the animals depending on when and where the depredations occurred. When it comes to livestock guard dogs, Bill said he wasn’t ready to take the plunge. The expense and time required are considerable.
“It’s not as convenient for us. This is not the way we would like to proceed. But if it saves a few yearlings and avoids a few problems, we’ll do it,” he said.
After his experience this spring, he would love the ability to shoot a grizzly bear in the blink of an eye, though he thinks that’s easier said than done.
“(It’s) especially not easy to do if you raise cattle and work with cattle all day and then try to alleviate your bear problem at night,” he said. “Frankly, we are very vulnerable.”