Montana: Students meet grizzly on way to school

By Jim Mann
The Daily Inter Lake


A grizzly walks through a field near Deer Park School Friday.
Photo courtesy of Ron Wilhelm

Columbia Falls, Montana - A routine walk between home and Deer Park School became a shock for two boys who encountered a grizzly bear Friday south of Columbia Falls.

"It was pretty cool," said 14-year-old Andy Allan. "It was the first bear I've ever seen."

The sighting caused quite a stir at this old-fashioned country school on Middle Road. Initial reports, broadcast by Flathead County Sheriff's Office dispatchers, indicated that school children had been charged by a grizzly bear.

Deputies were sent. The call prompted an immediate U-turn from Tim Manley, the state's grizzly bear management specialist, who was heading up the North Fork with Jim Williams, the regional wildlife manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"When we get a call like that, it's drop everything and go," Williams said. "Anytime we get a call on a grizzly bear in a residential or urban area, it's pretty important."

But a charging, threatening bear wasn't exactly what the boys encountered.

Allan and his friend, Brandon Murer, were walking on the field between his home and the school when they reached a cluster of large pine trees.

There they saw the bear.

"The bear walked and looked at us .... and then he charged about 30 feet, and then turned and went back toward the woods," Allan said, noting that the bear never approached closer than 80 yards.

But that was close enough to rattle the eighth-graders, who ran to Allan's house.

The bear continued to wander in the area, at one point spooking some horses on Elk Park Road.

Deer Park Principal Brigitte Doubrawa hustled her students inside as the bear rambled through a grassy field no more than a quarter mile away. It was the last day of school and the bear's presence interrupted a barbecue and other end-of-the-year activities.

Parents with binoculars and cameras angled to get pictures of the bear from a distance.

Manley said he didn't intend to take any immediate action with the bear, which he has not dealt with before.

"I don't know what bear this is, although I have had reports of a bear along the Flathead River near Jellison Road," he said. "I think that might be the same bear."

If it is, Manley said, the bear likely crossed the river Thursday night and started making its way toward the Swan Mountain range.

"My guess is this bear is going to move on," said Manley, who speculated the bear is a sub-adult trying to find a place to live in the local grizzly population. "He just has to cross (highway) 206 and he's back in the mountains again."

Manley said he'll continue to monitor the Deer Park area. If the bear sticks around, it could be in for a dose of "aversive conditioning," Manley's special way of hazing and herding bears away from homes with Karelian bear dogs plus cracker shells and bean-bag rounds fired from a shotgun.

The idea is to discourage bears from becoming comfortable around homes, where they can become habituated to unnatural foods and being close to people.

When that happens, bears can be euthanized or sent to captive facilities.

At Deer Park School, it didn't take long for year-end festivities to continue, with hamburgers on the grill and a good story to talk about.

"Everybody should have something to remember their last day with," Doubrawa said.

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by e-mail at


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