KALISPELL — In 1988, the renowned grizzly bear biologist Tim Manley was working as a research assistant on the South Fork Flathead River, trying to devise a reliable method for counting grizzlies in the dense and mountainous terrain of the Northern Continental Divide. More than a decade had passed since the species was federally protected in 1975, and a critical piece of the recovery puzzle remained missing: What is an accurate baseline population for grizzlies?
It's the ecological metric at the core of every delisting effort to date, and one that has furnished wildlife managers with foundational census data upon which nearly all land-use decisions in Northwest Montana are based. It serves as a valuable conservation guideline for a suite of rarefied ecosystems while bridling the rampant development pressures flanking them. It has allowed biologists to set and meet recovery goals for the threatened species, track its survival rate, identify habitat corridors linking segregated populations, and even chart elaborate family trees.
But back in the late '80s, Manley and his research colleagues were just laying the early groundwork for cataloging grizzlies in some of the wildest, most remote habitat in the Lower 48 — the South Fork Flathead River corridor, which cuts through the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness south of Glacier National Park.
"One of the key objectives of the South Fork Grizzly Bear Project was to come up with a way to estimate the entire population size," Manley told the Flathead Beacon. "Remember this is before modern DNA technology was a viable option and we were really trying to determine how many bears we were working with to identify recovery goals."
In order to distinguish individual bears in a population segment, researchers had to capture and collar the animals, using radio telemetry and aerial flight surveys to track the bears. It was effective, but it was also invasive, resource intensive and time consuming. And Manley was easily nauseated during the fixed-wing aircraft surveys high above the Bob.
"I used to get sick bouncing around in the plane," Manley said. "We were always trying to refine our technique to be more efficient, which is how we came up with the remote camera system."
Several years earlier, in 1985, the Great Falls native had worked on a habitat-monitoring project in the Cabinet-Yaak region outside of Libby, where he experimented with remote surveillance by jury-rigging a 35mm automatic camera to a burglar alarm he picked up at a local Radio Shack. Whenever the alarm's infrared sensor detected movement, it tripped the camera's shutter through Manley's open-circuit configuration. Although the nascent technology proved effective, producing an impressive collection of wildlife photography, it also had a long list of shortcomings, including a short battery life.
Hearing Manley describe the experiment years later, the leader of the South Fork monitoring project, Keith Aune, then a research biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), asked his research assistant if he could fine-tune the technology to monitor grizzlies down the South Fork. Equipped with an Olympus Infinity camera, another Radio Shack security special and a 12-volt lawn-and-garden battery, Manley set to work scabbing together the world's first remote-sensor trail camera, which he housed in a steel .50-caliber ammunition can with a hole bored through the side. He bought some L-shaped brackets and mounted the contraption to a tree, baiting the sites by hoisting a cable between two firs and dangling a leg of road-kill deer above the ground, out of the bear's reach.
"The bear would come visit the site, not get a food reward, but get its picture taken," Manley said. "It was candid camera in the wilderness."
The setup, while clunky at the time, has since become the gold standard for remote wildlife monitoring, both for recreational and scientific purposes.
"Each of these camera systems weighed 20 pounds, and we were limited to 36 exposures on a roll of film, so we had to go back every month and check them," Manley said. "I built 40 of them and we were able to identify seven individual bears we had no idea were around. Whenever we captured a live bear, we tagged it with an ear streamer. So when a bear's picture got taken, we could tell if it was a bear we'd already captured, or if it was a new bear, and we assigned the new bears a number. Eventually we worked up a new, more accurate population estimate."
Today, grizzly bear population estimates are more precise, due in large part to the cutting-edge DNA research pioneered by Kate Kendall, a now-retired U.S. Geological Survey biologist in Glacier National Park who, in 2004, relying on 34,000 fur samples obtained from bear rubs, determined that an estimated 765 individual grizzlies were living in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) — more than two times the previous estimates.
Since then, an interagency group of researchers conducted a trend-monitoring study led by bear biologist Rick Mace that zeroed in on a 3% annual growth rate, which brings the region's grizzly population today to an estimated 1,000 bears in the NCDE.
With grizzly populations in both the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems deemed recovered and poised for delisting, FWP continues to aggressively monitor population trends and conduct habitat research. But Manley largely stepped away from population monitoring, and for nearly the last three decades, his work with FWP has centered on how to resolve conflicts between people and grizzlies, particularly as they both increase their respective populations and expand their presence on the landscape.
"Most of the people who call me want to know, 'Why is there a grizzly bear in my backyard and what are you going to do about it?'" Manley said. "We have a lot of bears; we have a lot of people. My job is to try and make sure there's not a lot of conflict."
When Manley began his role as FWP's Grizzly Bear Management Specialist for Northwest Montana, a position he has held since 1993, the work was funded by BNSF Railway Company, which faced legal mandates requiring that it mitigate grizzly bear mortality due to its railroad operations in the region, where train derailments resulted in grain spills, the primary attractant drawing bears to railways, where they were killed in train collisions.
"That was a big reason that my position was created," Manley said. "I actually installed some of my old trail cams along the railroad to monitor bear usage of an area after a spill site was cleared to determine if the cleanup was effective."
Today, the human-wildlife interface is so expansive that points of conflict emerge closer to home, and are more often the result of bird feeders, barbecue residue, chicken coops, garbage cans, and other attractants. Last year, Manley received 250 reports related to bears. Of those reports, 131 were classified as confirmed grizzly bear conflicts, with the two most common conflicts involving grizzlies killing poultry (34 reports) and grizzlies feeding on unsecured garbage (32). Bears getting into wild bird feed (11) and feed for poultry, pets, pigs, and horses were also among the reported conflicts.
According to Manley's most recent grizzly bear management report, 279 individual grizzly bears have been captured 475 times under his supervision since 1993. Of those captured bears, 161 (58%) are known to have died or were sent to zoos, meaning they were permanently removed from the recovery population. Most of the mortalities (35%) have been through management removals, meaning the bears engaged in repeated conflicts that led to capture, relocation and eventually death as the direct result of a human-related conflict.
It's an unfortunate outcome that Manley deploys every ounce of his energy — and expends every shred of his limited resources — to avoid, focusing on prevention education as a means of curbing conflicts before they occur.
"The best way to minimize conflicts between people and grizzly bears is to prevent conflicts from occurring in the first place," Manley said, repeating a mantra familiar to many in the region.
Because human-caused mortality of grizzly bears, and especially of female grizzlies, has been one of the largest challenges in the path to recovering the species, Manley's work has drawn glitzy accolades through the years from a variety of national figures, including silver-screen icon Darryl Hannah, television personalities such as wildlife advocate Jungle Jack Hanna and, most recently, 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker.
"All of it is to try to get exposure on the program," Manley said, adding that funding remains limited even as bear-human conflicts are on the rise, and the attention has helped open additional revenue channels.
Still, Manley gains more satisfaction from the bonds he's forged with everyday landowners throughout the region, and even entire communities. Livestock producers have applied Manley's lessons to their cattle operations, preventing depredation by installing electric fencing that the bear management specialist helped supply. Others have invested in grain bins and storage containers to secure feed, and others still have helped spread Manley's grizzly gospel, educating their neighbors, some of them newcomers to the area, about prevention methods.
"Over the years, in many areas we have worked, we think the tolerance for grizzly bears has improved," Manley said. "Residents that live in grizzly bear country expect them to be around and have learned or are learning how to coexist."
One of those residents is Allen Chrisman, a certified tree farmer who lives about five miles from the Canadian border, across the North Fork Flathead River from Glacier National Park, on a 301-acre property that his family has owned since 1958.
It's not an exaggeration that grizzly bears up the North Fork outnumber the year-round residents, but that wasn't always the case, Chrisman said.
"Today, I tell people that we grow grizzly bears and harvest the occasional lodgepole pine," Chrisman said. "We are deep in grizzly bear territory. But when I was a teenager in the 60s, grizzly bears were rare at best. Now they are just one more species of presence on our family forest."
As the population recovered and the habitat range for grizzlies blossomed in the North Fork, conflicts between bears and landowners spiked, and during one years-long period in the late '90s, Manley received so many reports of complaints that he hauled his camper up the river corridor and camped out for weeks on end.
"I spent a lot of time on the North Fork, and I feel all those one-on-one conversations I had with people, some of them who I now consider my friends, they paid off," Manley said. "It's very rare now that I get conflict calls out of the North Fork. But in '97, '98, '99, it was constant."
The prevalent feeling of the old homesteaders up the North Fork back then was to "shoot, shovel and shut up," Chrisman said, recalling his neighbors' accounts of gut-shot bears lumbering off into the forest to die.
"For a lot of the old timers, bears were a problem to be disposed of. And that reflected their relationship with nature," he continued. "They would rather shoot a bear than change their own behaviors. I credit Tim and the FWP with building a great educational program that has really turned around the understanding of how humans occupy wildlife habitat in the North Fork, and the adverse effect that our behaviors can have on grizzly bears. We have moved away from the era of having to constantly police attractants because people as a rule are vigilant about containing and securely storing attractants."
Even if Manley spends less time up the North Fork, his busy season is starting earlier and running later, with reports of grizzly bears continuing well into December and starting back up again in mid-March. Most of his efforts these days are concentrated along the valley floor, in the "wildland-urban interface," meaning rural-residential areas girding Whitefish, Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Ferndale — "places that people didn't used to live 10, 15 years ago, and now there's houses everywhere."
"So while it's true that we have bears expanding their range into areas they didn't frequent historically, we also have a lot more people living in those areas, and we didn't hear about the bears because there weren't any people there to report a conflict," Manley explained, pointing out that Montana's human population has increased by 250,000 people since grizzlies were federally protected in 1975, while the number of grizzlies in the NCDE has quadrupled.
It's a dizzying paradox that Manley sizes up with a scientist's unflappable logic, and which becomes easier to digest as he plugs a non-numerable into the equation — even though the populations and habitat ranges of both bears and humans have expanded exponentially, so too has a corresponding awareness of people and carnivores.
"I have been working long enough in this area that I have been able to see a change in people's tolerance and willingness to coexist with grizzlies," he said. "It's been a long process, and it's been political at times. But working hand-in-hand with landowners and building relationships with other people, and helping them build a connection to grizzly bears on the landscape, that's the key to conservation. That's the key to recovery."