A probable grizzly bear sighting just over the edge of the Missoula Valley highlights the theme of this week’s Interagency Grizzly Committee meeting in Choteau: People get ready.
“We’ve done such a good job with the recovery, the public needs to understand what’s happening and how they can be safe in where they live,” IGBC spokesman Gregg Losinski said on Friday. “There are challenges because we’re not doing recovery anymore — we’re doing management.”
Since getting federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, grizzly bears now number nearly 2,000 in the continental United States. Most of those are concentrated in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem around Yellowstone National Park (about 700 grizzlies) and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem between Missoula and Glacier National Park (about 1,000 grizzlies).
The IGBC sets up separate recovery plans for each population area. In December it released its delisting plan for the Greater Yellowstone bears, and expects to switch focus to the NCDE bears’ plan.
Which makes Dana Bandy’s June 3 sighting important. He and companions had been volunteering at the Marshall Mountain Trail Festival and were driving down Marshall Canyon Road when a car in front of them stopped.
“The passengers were pointing up the side of the hill,” Bandy said. “I looked and it was a grizzly. It had the hump on the back. We’ve seen lots of bears in our lifetime, and we were all pretty sure. It was about 100 yards up the hill on the Bonner side of the road, in pretty open country. It wasn’t huge, but larger than most black bears.”
Bandy said everyone was so surprised by the sighting, no one thought to get a camera out. Without a picture, paw print or hair sample, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear manager Jamie Jonkel can’t confirm the report as a grizzly. But he wasn’t surprised by Bandy’s call.
“We’ve already had a grizzly amongst us in the Rattlesnake,” Jonkel said. “Ethyl made a foray through here on her ramble, and we know other collared bears made it through the Missoula Valley.”
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Ethyl was a female grizzly with a GPS tracking collar who made a 2,800-mile journey from Augusta, across the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountain wilderness areas, past Arlee, across Interstate 90 into the Bitterroot Mountains, over to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She denned for the winter near Kellogg, woke up and went back to Superior, through Missoula’s Blue Mountain Recreation Area, down to Florence, over to Coeur d’Alene again, returning to Missoula’s Rattlesnake Wilderness, then up through the Bob Marshall to den for the winter of 2014 in Glacier National Park.
Jonkel said he’s fairly certain Ethyl now dens in the Wisherd Ridge area of the Blackfoot Valley — a spot crucial to grizzly bear connectivity because it links the Rattlesnake, Garnet and Sapphire mountain ranges via the Blackfoot and Clark Fork river bottoms. That’s close to a basin where a black-bear hunter self-reported accidentally killing a male grizzly in early June. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents are investigating that incident.
“That’s why we’ve been working hard with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Nature Conservancy to at least keep some open space undeveloped so bears can use movement zones that are still intact. It’s not wilderness, but it’s extremely wild in there.”
This week's meeting features a panel discussion on the challenges of switching from recovery to management, especially for communities that haven’t seen a grizzly for decades. Committee members will spend one day touring ranches, towns and a Hutterite Colony along the Rocky Mountain Front listening to people’s experiences with grizzlies roaming far east of the Bob Marshall Wilderness boundary.
“Getting people used to recreating and living in bear country takes a little time if it’s new to a community,” said Hillary Cooley, the IGBC bear recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. While the summer meeting takes place in Choteau, Cooley said its message applies to the urban edges of Kalispell, Missoula and similar communities in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Removing grizzly bears from Endangered Species Act oversight means learning to live with large predators the same way neighborhoods adapt to the presence of mountain lions and black bears.
That could include public hunting seasons and aggressive trapping or shooting of grizzlies that get too accustomed to being around people and people-food. But grizzly bears reproduce much slower than lions or wolves. Overly aggressive management or killing could push the population back to threatened levels, which would result in the bear’s return to federal protection. The recovery plans must balance needs of the bear with tolerance of the surrounding humans.
“All the hard work with the community has been preparation for that,” Jonkel said of years of outreach and education about bear awareness in and around Missoula. “We’ve got neighborhood networks going up, getting prepared in case grizzlies do show up so there won’t be food attractants in place.”