Grizzly bears hibernate through the winter, but they prowled the news all 12 months of 2018.
From a national court battle over Endangered Species Act protections to an international controversy over drone video of a tiny cub struggling to climb a snow cliff, Ursus arctos horribilis kept humans busy longer than usual: Hikers in the Seeley Lake area spotted fresh grizzly tracks on Dec. 20, a month later than their typical denning.
The year got rolling with pledges to remove federal protections from the thousand-strong grizzly population in Montana’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. But that was predicated on a 2017 federal attempt to delist grizzlies in the tri-state Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which was under court challenge. Wyoming and Idaho wildlife agencies planned their first grizzly hunts in more than three decades, while grizzly protection activists rallied national attention to keep the bears away from hunters.
The big bears made unprecedented public appearances thanks to the ubiquitous presence of video cameras and social media. The Mission Valley Montana Cam offered daily footage of grizzlies lumbering along orchards and irrigation ditches. Bozeman-based ViralHog uploaded what first was lauded as inspirational video of a mother grizzly watching her cub repeatedly slide down and reclimb a treacherous snowfield. It was soon revealed to be a Russian drone video that biologists claimed put the bear family at unnecessary risk. And then there was “Tree Bear,” the Glacier National Park live-cam celebrity whose story took an unexpected turn.
Below are just a few of the grizzly bear incidents that made headlines in the past year.
Jan. 3: In preparation for removing Endangered Species Act protections from grizzlies between Missoula and Glacier National Park, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff hold a six-hour listening session in Missoula to gather comments on proposed habitat-based criteria for Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly management. The session draws about an hour’s worth of speakers, none of whom support the proposed criteria.
Jan. 8: In a highly unusual move, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requests national public comment on how a court ruling blocking delisting of Great Lakes gray wolves might affect delisting of Montana grizzlies.
Feb. 15: Montana’s Fish and Game Commission votes unanimously to skip a grizzly hunting season for 2018. Commissioners recalled how legal battles over Rocky Mountain gray wolf delisting eight years before had states setting and canceling seasons repeatedly before Congress finally removed the matter from judicial review.
“Montana has proven itself a leader in how it manages these species,” commission Chairman Dan Vermillion said during the meeting. “This is not a decision to not ever have a hunting season. There are a lot of issues that need to be resolved before our department spends a significant amount of resources setting up a season. This retains maximum flexibility moving forward into an increasingly difficult situation.”
March 1: Despite unusually heavy snowpack, tracks in the Jocko River and Ovando areas show grizzlies have ended hibernation in northwest Montana.
March 15: In a preliminary hearing on the Greater Yellowstone grizzly delisting, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen combined six lawsuits into a single case, setting the stage for a big August hearing. He asks all parties to refrain from seeking temporary orders or legal maneuvers.
“I don’t think we always make our best decisions, our best briefs or our best arguments in the context of emergency injunctive relief motions,” Christensen said in Missoula. “It’s not efficient to deal with issues of this importance in the context of restraining orders.”
March 23: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visits Sedrow-Woolley, Washington, and announces the restart of North Cascades grizzly reintroduction work. North Cascades National Park officials in late 2017 revealed they’d been ordered to stop work on a reintroduction plan, which was already three years through its process.
“Restoring the grizzly bear to the North Cascades Ecosystem is the American conservation ethic come to life,” Zinke said at the park headquarters. “We are managing the land and the wildlife according to the best science and best practices. The loss of the grizzly bear in the North Cascades would disturb the ecosystem and rob the region of an icon. We are moving forward with plans to restore the bear to the North Cascades, continuing our commitment to conservation and living up to our responsibility as the premier stewards of our public land.”
Despite Zinke’s pledge, the plan was not completed as promised by the end of 2018. Zinke himself submitted his resignation letter on Dec. 15.
March 30: A black bear denning in the bole of a cottonwood tree near Glacier National Park headquarters becomes an international viral sensation after park rangers set up a live-feed video camera watching it yawn, scratch and slowly get ready for spring.
April 24: Environmental groups accuse Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks of improperly sharing female grizzly mortality with Wyoming. A tri-state memorandum of understanding divides the expected annual surplus grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem among Wyoming, Idaho and Montana according to the percentage of grizzly monitoring area in each state. The math resulted in Montana getting 1.9 females, but the memo had no guidance on whether to round fractions up or down. Wyoming was only allowed 1.5 females under the formula, but posted a proposed 2018 hunt quota of two females.
“I asked them how they came to the point they thought they could hunt 10 males and two females,” Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Andrea Santarsiere said. “A Wyoming Game and Fish spokesman told me they had spoken to Montana FWP and they had agreed to give them the fraction they would need to round those up.”
April 26: West Glacier’s Tree Bear climbs out of its den, kills two domestic llamas, and gets relocated to the interior of Glacier National Park. “But how do you remove a bear with 750,000 Facebook followers?” GNP wildlife biologist John Waller asked. "It's sleepy and really cute, but it is a predator, and predators eat meat. That's sometimes hard for people to accept. That bear was relocated, and hopefully it will stay out of trouble.”
May 17: Fish and Wildlife Service field biologist Amber Kornak gets mauled by a grizzly bear in the Cabinet Mountains while checking hair snares. Although seriously injured, she repels the grizzly with bear spray and makes it out of the forest on her own. Kornak states the incident was accidental, and no action is taken against the grizzly.
June 15: Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee holds its summer meeting in Polson. Its gathering on the Flathead Indian Reservation marks the first time it has convened on Indian land. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman Ron Trahan advises the committee the tribes remain strongly opposed to any grizzly hunting season.
“The bear is very special to us,” Trahan said. “If they delist it, it worries us that we’re going to be back where we originally started, where bear numbers will diminish back down to where we started.”
July 19: Department of Interior Assistant Secretary David Bernhardt announces proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act, including greater cost-benefit analysis of recovery efforts and reduced requirements for public land managers to consult on actions that might harm endangered or threatened species. After Zinke’s resignation at the end of the year, President Trump announced Bernhardt would replace him.
July 24: A Highway 93 motorist hits and kills a female grizzly and two cubs. A third cub is captured alive, but later euthanized after biologists determine it’s too young to survive without its mother. The incident highlights a record roadkill toll on Northern Continental Divide grizzlies. By the end of 2018, a record 17 grizzlies had died on the Flathead Indian Reservation. For the whole recovery system, at least 51 were known to have died in 2018, also setting an ecosystem mortality record.
Aug. 13: A Canadian zoo adopts three grizzly cubs orphaned after a motorist killed their mother near Ovando on Highway 200. Missoula hunter and wildlife activist Susan Campbell Reneau spent months searching for a facility to accept the cubs, which had grown from 30 pounds apiece to more than 70 pounds after a summer of eating donated vegetables at Montana Wild’s wild animal shelter.
“I’m not going to kiss them, although I would like to,” Reneau said on her way to Helena to see the cubs off. “They’re gorgeous grizzly bears. I’m going with a bag full of goodies for the caregivers.”
Aug. 28: Grizzly protection advocates rally in Missoula ahead of the federal court hearing on Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s delisting rule. Members of Jackson Hole-based Shoot 'Em With A Camera celebrate winning two of Wyoming’s grizzly hunting permits and pledge to spend their time in the field photographing instead of shooting.
Aug. 30: Crow Tribe et. al. vs. Zinke begins with a courtroom so packed with attorneys for the multiple plaintiffs and defendants, a second room has to be set up for overflow spectators. Judge Christensen takes four hours of testimony fielding more than 40 arguments for and against keeping Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies on Endangered Species Act protection. Although Wyoming and Idaho’s grizzly hunting seasons are scheduled to start on Sept. 1, Christensen adjourns the hearing without ruling from the bench, as many court watchers predicted. But at 5:05 p.m. Christensen issues a 14-day temporary restraining order blocking the hunts.
Sept. 13: The day before his temporary restraining order would expire, Christensen extends it another 14 days.
Sept. 14: The day before Wyoming’s second phase of its grizzly hunt was to start, a grizzly bear kills a Jackson Hole hunting guide as the man and his client attempt to retrieve an elk carcass in the Teton Wilderness east of Grand Teton National Park. Wyoming game wardens kill two bears suspected of the attack.
Sept. 24: Christensen overturns the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem delisting rule and remands it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, citing numerous legal failings.
“Although this order may have impacts throughout grizzly country and beyond, this case is not about the ethics of hunting and it is not about solving human- or livestock-grizzly conflicts as a practical or philosophical matter,” Christensen wrote at the start of his 48-page ruling. “This court's review, constrained by the Constitution and the laws enacted by Congress, is limited to answering a yes-or-no question: Did the United States Fish and Wildlife Service exceed its legal authority when it delisted the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear?”
Oct. 17: Hutterite members of the Birch Creek Colony on the Rocky Mountain Front find a 900-pound grizzly in a work shed. The bear is tranquilized and removed without injury.
Oct. 27: A 2-year-old male grizzly is captured at the Whitetail Golf Course near Stevensville after snapping several pin flags and digging up earthworms on a putting green. Although the bear is on the edge of the Bitterroot Ecosystem, which has no resident grizzlies, it is relocated to the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which has about 1,000 bears.
Nov. 21: Although the Fish and Wildlife Service approved a grizzly reintroduction plan for the Bitterroots in 2000 that’s still on the books, leaders of the three surrounding national forests acknowledge they had made no preparations for dealing with grizzlies that naturally immigrate into the area.
Dec. 21: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service files a notice of appeal against Christensen’s ruling to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. However, it provides no hints of how it might challenge the decision, and federal officials add the notice preserves the government’s right to appeal at a later date while it considers redrafting the entire delisting rule.