People in the Bitterroot valley have been living with bears for a long time. Over the years the population has grown more “bear aware”, especially on the West side of the valley along the forest front, learning how not to tempt them into our yards and how to protect our pets. But the need to be bear aware is taking on a new level of seriousness these days as a new kind of bear is moving into the neighborhood, the grizzly bear.
The fact that Bitterrooters are already living with grizzlies can no longer be denied. Just last year, several golfers shared the Whitetail Golf Course, north of Stevensville, with a grizzly bear for over a week. They knew that a bear was around from the signs but when it began to disturb the fairway grounds, the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) was called in. It was only after they had succeeded in trapping the bear that it was discovered to be a grizzly.
The grizzly bears are trending southward from the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk Grizzly Bear Recovery Areas. The grizzly bear killed in the Bitterroot in 2007 has been determined to be from the Selkirk area. The most recent grizzly known to visit the Bitterroot this summer, Bear 927, wandered down from the Cabinet area.
Pushed towards extinction in the lower 48 states, the grizzly was listed as threatened in the U.S. under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, then de-listed, and recently re-listed. It is currently on the list of threatened species and under federal protection.
In 1983, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) was formed to help ensure recovery of viable grizzly bear populations and their habitat in the lower 48 states through interagency coordination of policy, planning, management, and research.
Areas containing existing populations were identified, as well as areas of “suitable habitat” for grizzly bear expansion. The Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk ecosystems were identified as having grizzly populations and were designated bear recovery areas. The Bitterroot Ecosystem, covering parts of Idaho and Montana, was also identified as a recovery zone with suitable habitat for grizzlies. But no grizzlies were believed to inhabit it. No relocation of bears into the Bitterroot is occurring, but the bears are moving into the area naturally from recovery areas to the north.
In 1990, the IGBC recognized that the population of grizzlies in the Cabinet Mountains had dwindled to a mere six individuals and following a public process it was decided to bring in some grizzly bears from other areas to augment that existing population.
According to Wayne Kasworm, a US Fish & Wildlife Service member of the Cabinet and North Cascades IGBC Subcommittee, who tracks the bears, the augmentation efforts have not proceeded rapidly. Only 22 bears have been introduced to the Cabinet area over the whole course of the program which started in 1990.
“Only back country bears with no history of conflicts with people,” said Kasworm. “We would move bears during July and August to take advantage of developing food supplies, where huckleberries and fruit production are probably some of the primary food resources. Initially only adult females, we felt like we had some males that could cover them, however after a few years we have started moving some males as well.” All bears were monitored for as long as radio collars would last.
He said one criteria for the success of the program was to have the bear remain in the target area for at least one year. So far, most of them have. Seven of the 22 bears released in the area have wandered out of the area. But a few of those actually returned. Some are known to have died.
“Ultimate success is measured by judging the reproductive success,” said Kasworm. DNA research has confirmed their success in that regard. Hair samples are collected from “rubbing trees” and at camera traps where small areas are fenced off with a single strand of barbed wire and some smelly bait placed on the inside. The hair tufts left on the wire are then analyzed at a lab and a bear’s heritage can be determined.
In the Cabinet group, a single male has been determined to be responsible for 10 of the first generation offspring, 17 of the second generation offspring, and all three of the third generation offspring.
Certainly a few of them have left and provided some interesting stories, Kasworm said, but the vast majority of those animals, he notes, have stayed in the Cabinets and taken up residence, “hence the family tree based on genetic analysis.” He said it proves the overall success of the program.
Being able to track the animals by radio collar has provided a lot of information concerning the bears’ activities. Through the use of a new form of radio collar that works with an iridium satellite phone, they have been able to plot, for the most part, the route of Bear 927, for instance, on its recent visits to the Bitterroot valley.
Bear 927 was released in the Cabinets in July of 2018 at a site used previously for other releases. The bear quickly moved south, however, crossing the Clark Fork River around the end of August or first of September.
The black bear season had opened in Idaho and bait can be placed in that area of Idaho for hunting and killing black bears. The bear showed up at a bait site and the owner of the site, who used a trail camera, saw it and reported it. Idaho Fish and Game proposed to trap the bear and USFW talked to MT FWP about bringing it back into the state and after some discussion it was agreed to move it into the Cabinets.
“The bear was taken to the Cabinets but wasn’t given the memo,” said Kasworm. “He turned around and went right back down to the same place.” However, this time he didn’t go back to the bait site, instead he wandered back and forth between Montana and Idaho along the border for a bit before heading back to the Cabinets and denning just about five miles from the area where he had been released.
The next spring, in March of this year, the bear headed south again and crossed the Clark Fork River in early April of 2019 and went south. The bear passed the Magee Ranger Station, went back into Montana and did a little bit of gyration north of I-90, in the St. Regis and Superior area. He looked right down on Quinn’s Hot Springs at one point and then went down and bounced along the I-90 corridor until crossing it somewhere around DeBorgia in May.
From there Bear 927 went south down to Hwy 12 and crossed that highway in June heading towards Brushy Fork. He ended up spending a lot of time in a burned area around Storm Creek. Kasworm speculated that there were probably a lot of huckleberries in the burned area. The bear spent most of July and August there. From there he roamed eastward exploring the Bitterroot front a bit and, at one point, headed out to a spot overlooking the town of Lolo. At that point he abruptly turned around and backtracked, soon heading north back to the Cabinets. As of yet, the bear has still not denned and was located about five miles east of the Cabinet Recovery Area.
An outfitter has reported that he believes there may be an uncollared bear accompanying Bear 927 on his rounds but it has not been confirmed.
The fact is that no matter how much is learned about the movement of collared bears, there is a population moving around that is not collared.
Kasworm gave his report of the bear’s movements to the IGBC Bitterroot Ecosystem Subcommittee at its most recent meeting, last week in Hamilton.
FWP biologist Jamie Jonkel, who sits on the subcommittee, said his agency has been keeping track of reports on the Montana side and trying to validate them.
He said an adult male was photographed in August just south of the Bitterroot in the Big Hole. They also recently received a good photograph of a grizzly track on the divide between the Big Hole and the Bitterroot. He called it a “possible verified,” and said they were trying to reach the hunter for more photos.
Someone did submit a photo claiming it to be of a grizzly bear at Lolo Hot Springs, but upon examination the photo was determined to be a fake.
He said there were other reports that were not verified or not verifiable. He did receive some credible but unverifiable reports from the MPG Ranch, located in the Eight Mile area northeast of Florence. No tracks or photos were available, but three people were interviewed who all made the same claim. The ranch is beginning a study of the lineage and movements of the black bears in the area.
Some verifications were made in the Flint Range in the Georgetown Lake area, at Pipestone Pass, and a few in North Idaho.
According to Jim “J. J.” Teare, of Idaho Fish and Game, there were bear reports received on the Idaho side of the Bitterroot Ecosystem as well. He said the agency received several camera IDs of a bear that was not caught and has no longer been seen and called it a “maybe probable.” He said there was a bear photo from the Red River area in September that looked like a grizzly but was unconfirmed. They did get a “highly probable” report from a fish crew who photographed a grizzly track in the Red River Area. There was also a report of bear near Elk City that is “unconfirmed.” There is a “pretty much confirmed” photo of a bear in the Newsome Creek area and a “highly probable” camera sighting on Whitebird Creek.
Also at the Subcommittee meeting, but not a member of it and no longer an employee of Idaho Fish and Game, was Steve Nadeau. Nadeau worked for the agency for about 20 years starting in 1998. He was on the job when the first grizzly was killed in the Bitterroot in 2007.
Nadeau said that all the agencies were embarrassed at the time.
“USFWS was embarrassed, Fish and Game was embarrassed, the Forest Service was embarrassed, because we had all told everybody there were no grizzlies,” he said. He urged the Subcommittee members to get a move on and get some information out to the public and something posted at the trailheads by spring. He said they should make it easy for people to report sightings. He also said it was important to get a good response protocol established.
Jonkel said that an interim protocol had been developed, but that it hadn’t yet gotten official approval. In the meantime, according to Hillary Cooley, USFWS Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator advising the subcommittee, the issue of relocation response is being made on a case by case basis.
Nadeau has spent several years writing a book about the grizzly bear recovery efforts. He said the book was currently under review and he expected it to be published this spring.
Subcommittee members did not need much urging. They have a new sense of urgency about their business based on the sudden surge in activity, from zero new reports of grizzlies to all this.
“The bears are here,” said Chuck Mark, Supervisor of the Salmon-Challis National Forest, who chairs the Subcommittee. “We need to get out ahead of this as best we can because the bears are here. They are coming and we don’t want to be in a reactionary mode like they were a year ago when they trapped a bear out at Stevensville Golf Course and everybody was throwing theirs arms up in the air saying, ‘Okay, now what do we do?’ We want to get ahead of this thing.”
A county commissioner from the Idaho side and the Montana side are serving on the subcommittee as representatives of all the counties within the Bitterroot Ecosystem. Ravalli County Commissioner Chris Hoffman is on the Subcommittee for Montana. Lamhi County Commissioner Brett Barsalou is representing the Idaho side.
Hoffman simply said that there was a lot of concern within the community about the grizzly bear situation.
Barsalou said, “If bears migrate into central Idaho on Salmon/Challis it’s not going to be viewed well by a lot of people…I lived through the wolf reintroduction and I tell you we better have some sort of message if those bears make an accelerated movement. If we really start seeing some movement on our side it’s not going to be pretty.”
Josh Osher, public policy director of the Montana Western Watersheds Project, noted that grizzlies are also huge economic boosters in the tourism and recreation industry. He said the natural establishment of a grizzly population in the Bitterroot would have a very positive effect on the Bitterroot economy and should be viewed as a benefit.
Members of the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council were also present at the Subcommittee meeting. The council has been tasked with broad strategic objectives including maintaining and enhancing human safety, ensuring a healthy and sustainable grizzly bear population, improving timely and effective response to conflicts involving grizzly bears, engaging all partners in grizzly-related outreach and conflict prevention, and improving intergovernmental, interagency, and tribal coordination.
They have been asked to deliver a report and recommendations to the Governor by August 2020.
The governor’s council has already held two public meetings and a third is planned to be held in Missoula on December 4-5 on the University of Montana campus at the University Center room 330. The focus, according to council coordinator Heather Stokes, will be “conflict prevention and response.”