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As Montana grizzly bears have pushed beyond their usual mountain strongholds into the Bitterroot and Judith Basin areas, Washington state residents got a surprise visit this fall from a 476-pound grizzly west of the Pend Oreille River.

“That was an eye-opener for the state of Washington,” said Wayne Kasworm, U.S. Fish and Wildlife grizzly manager in Libby. “It was an unusual movement, like the bear in Stevensville and the bears showing up east of the Rocky Mountain Front. That was well outside of its expected range.”

The fall update of the Cabinet-Yaak/Selkirk grizzly activity released on Friday raised another new grizzly issue. A two-year-old male grizzly that was transplanted in the Cabinet Mountains last July got spotted prowling around a black-bear bait site in the Idaho Panhandle. Idaho Fish and Game officials captured it, and the bear was released back in Montana around the south fork of the Bull River. It returned to the bait site in September and now is believed to be crisscrossing the border near Heron.

Montana black-bear hunters may not use bait, and Idaho prohibits baiting in the northern portion of the Panhandle. Grizzlies are protected as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act and may not be hunted at all in the Lower 48 states. Hunters in both states are required to know the difference between the two species, which can be difficult in the field. The Heron bear made it particularly hard because it had a nearly all-black fur instead of the more typical silver-tipped brown coat that gives the grizzly its name.

Kasworm said a more complicated issue involves public education about grizzlies in places that aren’t accustomed to them.

“North of the Clark Fork River, we have food storage orders out on public land to keep attractants away from grizzly bears,” Kasworm said. “But when black-bear season opens in the fall, those attractants become legal in baiting areas. One day we’re working to minimize them, and the next day they’re legal.”

The Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk recovery areas each hold about 50 grizzly bears in the remote mountains along the Canadian border with Montana, Idaho and Washington. They’re dwarfed by the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which has an estimated 1,000 grizzlies in the mountains between Glacier National Park and Missoula.

“In just the last year, we’ve got bears in Stevensville and bears in Two Dot,” Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee spokesman Dillon Tabish said of the movement reports. “We’ve identified and drawn these recovery zones on the map, but bears don’t know about the boundaries. It’s important to educate and inform residents about this. They haven’t been used to being in bear country.”

Another estimated 750 grizzlies live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem surrounding Yellowstone National Park in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. In 2017, FWS removed those bears from Endangered Species Act protection and allowed the states to offer hunting seasons. However, a federal court judge in Missoula reversed the delisting in September. Among the reasons, the judge found that the agency failed to show how turning GYE grizzlies over to state management might affect grizzlies in the other recovery areas, or how the bears in separate recovery areas would ever achieve genetic connectivity.

Although grizzlies have shown a willingness to explore territory outside their designated ecosystems, they so far haven’t mated. That leads to concerns the isolated populations could be weakened by inbreeding, especially in the extremely isolated Greater Yellowstone population.

“In the last five years, we’ve documented at least four different males moving back and forth between the Yaak and Cabinet regions, or the Selkirk and Cabinets, but no reproduction,” Kasworm said. “The Selkirks extend north of the border, and in recent times we’ve documented some reproduction but we haven’t seen that going into the Cabinets yet. To have reproduction, you’ve got to have movement first.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.