Gardening for Wildlife in Bear Country

In the state of Montana, only Missoula – The Garden City – is a registered Community Wildlife Habitat. In 2015, the City of Missoula and National Wildlife Federation partnered to launch the Missoula Community Wildlife Habitat Initiative to construct and restore wildlife habitat throughout the city.

Missoula is situated in a valley, surrounded by wild areas to the North, East, South, and West. These wild areas are ideal habitat for bears, mountain lions, deer, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and other native species.

Missoula, MT. Credit: Prizrak 2084/Flickr.

Wildlife make their way into the neighborhoods that are on the brink of the wild areas, and eventually discover discarded, human food. Once an animal becomes habituated and begins to rely on humans for food, conflict sometimes arises and, sadly, becomes fatal for wildlife.

Due to its proximity to wild spaces, Missoula is a unique place to garden for wildlife. It is especially important to be aware of the needs of our native species. To further the Missoula Community Wildlife Habitat Initiative, we hosted a Garden for Wildlife workshop that provided solutions to the challenges that Missoula gardeners face and tips on how to responsibly create gardens that can support a variety of Montana species.  

Events hosted by Missoula Community Wildlife Habitat. Follow on Facebook.

We chose to focus the workshop on the needs of gardeners and wildlife in Bear Country, in partnership with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Defenders of Wildlife, and a local farmer. The 3-hour class taught residents on how to create wildlife-friendly gardens, overcome wildlife challenges, and how to reduce unnatural wildlife attractants.

If you ask anyone in Missoula about wildlife challenges, they are sure to say “DEER”! This is a tricky challenge to address because deer love to eat flowers – much to the dismay of many Missoula gardeners.

The best way to deter them is by using plants that are unpalatable to deer and use fencing to keep them out of the areas you want to protect. This will also help reduce the number of mountain lions coming into town!

Normal fencing can be a great solution for keeping wildlife attractants protected, and electric fencing provides another layer of deterrence. At our workshop, a local wildlife fencing expert gave helpful information for when you need one, how much they cost, and even how to set them up – along with a live demonstration! Spoiler: no one got shocked! 

Here is what we discovered attract bears and deer and they can be managed:

  • Garbage: Bear resistant garbage cans are great! Keep your garbage in a stored area and only place it by the curb the morning of pick-up.  
  • Compost: Keep it stored in a shed or have an electric fence around it.
  • Fruit trees: Pick the fruit as soon as it’s ripe and make sure it doesn’t gather on the ground. Use electric fencing around the tree to deter bears.
  • Chicken Coops: Electric fence around the coop to protect chickens from predators.
  • Bird Feeders: Only put out during the winter months when bears are inactive. Make sure the feeders are 10 feet high and 4 feet from the hanging source. 
Workshop participants learning how to set-up an electric fence. Credit: Naomi Alhadeff.

If there is an attractant, the wildlife isn’t the problem, your practices are. Gardening for wildlife is all about being a steward of the land and making choices that help wildlife. For birds, pollinators, amphibians, and small wildlife that means one thing and for bears, mountain lions, and deer it means something different. Recognizing the different needs of wildlife is the key to gardening for wildlife in Montana’s Bear Country.