LINCOLN – You once needed a camera or really bad luck to see the Lincoln Grizzly.
Since the 830-pound bear died in a car collision two years ago, he’s been sitting in the window of the Lincoln Ranger District office. And in that time, he may have done more good for his fellow grizzlies and community than he ever managed while alive.
“It’s become quite a sensation,” said Greg Gilchrist, who owns the Lake Upsata Outfitters guest lodge, 45 crow-flight miles from the ranger station. “All the guests at the lodge want to go to Lincoln to see it. All the kids from the Ovando school got field trips to see it. I’m getting lots of e-mails about it.”
But beyond the Barnum-and-Bailey attraction of seeing an 8-foot-tall king of the woods up close, the Lincoln Grizzly has had a more subtle impact on this edge of the wilderness.
Grizzly country surrounds Lincoln. Grizzly bears have federal protection as a threatened species. That might seem unnecessary for an animal that once swiped a 5-by-5 bull elk from a Lincoln man’s pickup bed without opening the tailgate or leaving any drag smears. But it has a big bureaucratic impact on how people live in the woods.
“It’s changed a lot of people’s perspective on bears,” said Forest Service wildlife biologist Pat Shanley. “This community has developed a lot of ownership – people got on board to make sure it stayed here. And now they’re seeing bears as something more than just a roadblock to what they want to do in the woods.”
The Lincoln Grizzly was about as famous as a grizzly can get without eating someone. He was born in 1995 and radio-collared the next year. That fall, he was hit by a car west of Choteau. He survived, and his collar kept functioning through 1998.
In 2004, he showed up again in a regional DNA hair sample survey, prowling the area between Lincoln and Seeley Lake. Over the years, he developed a habit of checking homes and cabins for food. Lincoln area residents had numerous run-ins with the bear, and he became the star of lots of through-the-window wildlife photos.
He ran into a pickup sometime before dawn on Oct. 17, 2007, about five miles west of Lincoln. The crash fractured his skull and crumpled the truck’s heavy-duty bumper and grill guard. The big bear died instantly.
But his death took on a life of its own. When it was realized he was one of the biggest bears on record, lots of institutions lined up to claim the carcass. The University of Montana wanted to add it to its Grizzly mascot collection. Another proposal would have taken it to the Capitol in Helena.
But a letter-writing campaign spearheaded by children from Lincoln, Ovando, Helmville and Seeley Lake let the bear stay on home ground. In June 2008, a team of four taxidermists gathered in the Lincoln Community Center to spend three days mounting the bear’s hide on an Alaskan brown bear frame.
The Lincoln Grizzly proved odd in a number of ways. For such a mature bear, his five-inch claws showed little wear. Shanley said that indicates he was living easy in the Blackfoot river bottoms, instead of turning over rocks for grubs and ground squirrels in the high country.
Then there was his backside. As big bears go, the Lincoln Grizzly was less an Arnold Schwarzenegger and more a John Goodman. It took a lot of chopped Styrofoam and Bondo body filler glue to fit the Alaskan bear frame to the Montana bear’s butt.
Finally, there was his presence. Gerald Lyons runs the front desk at the Lincoln Ranger Station. In a drawer, he keeps the monthly calendar that tracks the number of daily visitors.
In June 2008, 178 people visited the station. The Lincoln Grizzly went on display the next month.
Lyons’ July 2008 calendar page has 3,171 hash marks.
“Talk about changing the scope of your job,” he said. “I’m just supposed to sell a few maps, give out fishing information and answer the phone. Now I’ve got Greyhound buses stopping here.”
Over at the Bootlegger Bar, owner Vicki Krause said the bear helped remind people they live in, as the sign over her door says, “Bear Country.”
“People aren’t complaining about bears as much,” she said. “I don’t know why they did. If you don’t like wildlife here, I don’t know what to tell you. You live in Lincoln. Bear habitat is right behind here.”
Bicyclists, snowmobilers, hunters, ATV riders, hikers and anglers drift through Lincoln, and its full-time residents work hard to attract their business. Having the bear in the ranger station window sort of crystallizes what makes the place attractive, Krause said.
“The highway brings a lot of business through here, and everybody’s grasping at straws to stay alive,” she said. “We’re really fortunate the Forest Service fought to keep him here.”
That wasn’t always the case with bears. Shanley recalled how the last grizzly hunting license was sold in 1991. Families whose earlier generations had hunted grizzlies as a dangerous nuisance now had to co-exist with the big predators.
“There was a lot more resentment toward bears,” Shanley said. “They saw management decisions driven to better things for the bear, to the exclusion of human uses.”
The ranger district is in the middle of new travel management rule-making, a subject that often puts backcountry users at odds with grizzlies. Motorized travel tends to push grizzlies out of preferred habitat, and their endangered status gives them favored status in debates over road closures and seasonal access rules.
Now when those public meetings on travel plans take place in the Lincoln Ranger District office, everyone walks by the Lincoln Grizzly as they enter the door.
“We’re seeing a lot more people interested in getting more understanding about the bears,” Shanley said. “They’re definitely considering the needs of the bears. And I think a lot of that has changed since this guy’s been here.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.