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On the east side of the Yellowstone River near Emigrant, two young grizzly bears have spent nights this week rummaging through garbage in unsecured Park County dumpsters. Now their fate rests with wildlife managers, though so far, the bears have eluded capture.

Members of the Livingston-based group Save the Yellowstone Grizzly have been watching the bears at the dumpsters since Monday, according to the group’s founder and board chair Doug Peacock.

Reports to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks indicate that the bears have been raiding the county’s dumpsters since last week, though spokesperson Morgan Jacobsen couldn’t say exactly which day.

FWP staff set up culvert traps in an attempt to capture the bears this week, but their efforts so far have been unsuccessful. The bears didn’t return to the site on Wednesday night, Jacobsen said.

Reports surfaced that the grizzlies found food rewards at other residences about a mile away that night, he said.

The department was mulling over plans to put the traps elsewhere on near that spot instead on Thursday night, he said.

“Up to this point, it is likely the bears have gotten food rewards for multiple consecutive nights,” Jacobsen said. “Whether or not they’ll get released somewhere else or not depends on different circumstances … If they are not relocated, they’ll be euthanized.”

For filmmaker Brad Orsted, the story of these two subadult bears is all too familiar. After an elk hunter shot a grizzly bear sow outside of Yellowstone National Park in the fall of 2015, he documented the movements of her two orphaned cubs.

Despite all odds and predictions, the orphans of Tom Miner Basin survived their first Montana winter. Orsted put together a short film about the cubs called “The Orphans of Grizzly Valley.”

In March of 2019, Orsted learned that Montana FWP had euthanized the bears he’d spent so much time filming.

The orphans had wandered into Paradise Valley, where they got into an old abandoned orchard not too far away from the site of the Park County dumpsters, he said. They’d become habituated to humans and human food sources.

“It broke my heart,” Orsted said of the incident in the 2021 wildlife documentary “The Beast of Our Time: Climate Change and Grizzly Bears.” The documentary was directed by Orsted and produced by members of Save the Yellowstone Grizzly.

Orsted doesn’t want to see the same thing happen to the two young grizzlies that have been getting into trash near Emigrant, so he’s been documenting them tearing through unsecured garbage from his truck.

On Monday night, Orsted camped out in his truck near the dumpsters, even though a cold, wintry storm hit the area overnight.

There is a gate around the area, and there are mechanisms to close it, he said. But since the gate’s wheels are broken and no one has been hired to close it before nightfall, it never gets closed.

“With a little community support, we can figure out how to close the gate and lids. We just need a centered plan,” he said. “We can’t just leave an open dump and shrug our shoulders when a bear gets into it and has to be killed.”

Jacobsen said FWP has been working with Park County to make the site more bear-resistant. The area is one of many the county is focused on securing, he said.

FWP is urging members of the public to stay away from the area while wildlife managers attempt to trap the grizzlies. Being there is unsafe, according to Jacobsen.

Park County Commissioner Steve Caldwell said county officials are doing what they can to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. Plans to secure the site of the dumpsters along East River Road and elsewhere in Park County are already in the works.

Half of the site’s containers were emptied out and cleaned before Wednesday evening, and Caldwell said he expected the rest would be clean before nightfall that day.

“(The containers) have been left open at night because we don’t have the budget for a gate attendant to open and close them,” he said. “It’s safe to say that bears have rarely been at the site, though it’s not unheard of. This is the first time it has needed attention.”

In the short term, the county plans to hire an attendant to go out to the site and close the gate, starting whenever the two bears are captured, Caldwell said. In the long term, staff plan to install gates around the area that will close automatically every night.

“We certainly don’t take this situation lightly, and we don’t want to see two grizzly bears removed from the system,” he said. “A bear that gets into a human supply of food — its prospects are usually not good.”

Peacock, who has spent his life advocating for grizzlies, said the larger story around the fate of the two young bears has to do with climate change.

The loss of whitebark pine in Yellowstone National Park and elsewhere across the region means bears that usually feed on the tree’s pine nuts in the fall have to look for alternative food sources while they’re going through a gorging phase called hyperphagia.

Inevitably, the bears that leave wild areas come into contact with humans, and that puts them in danger, according to Peacock.

Orsted said that people in places like Paradise Valley need to be tolerant of grizzlies and allow them to spread out and connect with other isolated bear populations across Montana.

“If we lose the grizzly, we’ve lost a national treasure. We’ve lost something within ourselves,” he said. “It’s our duty to understand where we live and coexist with what’s gone on before us. We need something big on the landscape to remind us that we’re very small.”

Orsted said multi-millionaires are coming into Paradise Valley to buy homes, so the money should be there to fix a dump.

“it’s the right thing to do, but the right thing and the easy thing are rarely the same thing,” he said.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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