Montanans living along the winding Teton River, well east of the Rocky Mountain Front were quick to notice their new neighbor this summer. As early as the beginning of July, ranchers and other landowners along the prairie began intermittently spotting a solitary grizzly bear journeying east, away from the mountains.
Residents of the rural grasslands, including Mike Madel, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park’s Region 4 Grizzly Bear Management Specialist based in Choteau, were even more surprised in mid-July when members of a local ranching family captured photographs of the lone bear on their land along the Teton north of Fort Benton, ambling through open prairie nearly 100 miles from the mountains, where Ursus arctos horribilis is expected these days.
For Madel and other bear managers in the state, the bear’s arrival so far beyond the range of today’s grizzlies and into historic habitat was a revelation – and one that would be the first of many throughout the summer and fall.
Madel, a 23-year veteran of working with grizzlies along the Front, called 2009 an “unprecedented” year for bears wandering back on to the prairie, and says the bears’ presence there is only likely to increase in coming years.
That means an entire population of humans will now have to learn how to cohabitate with grizzlies. While the plains are historically grizzly country, for many living there now, the return of the grizzly is – to put it lightly – a surprise.
Karla Ayers, whose daughter Elizabeth snapped the now-famous shots of what turned out to be a young male grizzly near Fort Benton, said ranchers and other residents living on the high plains just aren’t accustomed to having grizzlies in their midst. She said it’s not like on the Rocky Mountain Front, where people have been living with bears now for years.
“Our mindset is just not ready to deal with bears,” she said.
That plains residents aren’t yet ready to live with bears could be reflected in the increase in human-caused grizzly deaths this year. So far in 2009, the deaths of 10 of the great bears have been confirmed in Madel’s region, with eight of those attributed to humans.
“It’s certainly the highest on record,” Madel said.
In one high-profile case, officials are now offering $11,000 for information leading to the arrest of whoever poached a famous 800-pound grizzly nicknamed “Maximus” near Dupuyer in August.
The historic range of the opportunistic grizzly bear once stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Plains and from the high Arctic well into present-day Mexico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that up to 50,000 grizzlies occupied the area south of present-day Canada when Lewis and Clark journeyed across the continent. Today, the population in the lower 48 states covers just two percent of its former range and only numbers between 1,200- to 1,400-strong. Though settlement pushed grizzlies off the prairies earlier than just about anywhere else, bear experts say the wide-open landscape once provided them with some of the richest habitat anywhere.
Now, they’re apparently in search of that habitat once again. Nearly as surprising as the bear the Ayers family spotted north of Fort Benton was the sow grizzly and three cubs spotted by a rancher in October feeding on a cow carcass well out on the plains near the community of Simms. Madel also investigated this sighting and says the grizzly foursome didn’t kill the cow. He believes the bears used the Sun River as a safe travel corridor from the mountains to the plains.
Also this summer, bird hunters spotted another grizzly south of Tiber Dam, which is north of Great Falls and well east of Interstate 15.
Madel speculates that the bear found near Fort Benton was likely sticking close to the Teton River, which flows down in a canyon beneath rolling prairie uplands along much of its length.
Had the grizzly kept to itself and out of trouble after leaving the Ayers ranch along the Teton, it very well may have kept traveling east. But that was not to be. Not long after the Fort Benton sighting, the bear arrived at another sheep ranch about 11-miles downstream near Loma, a small outpost on the plains northeast of Great Falls. There, the bear killed a sheep, officials say, spelling the end of its noteworthy jaunt.
After its capture by a federal Wildlife Services agent, Madel was called into tranquilize and transport the 238-pound yearling male back to a remote spot west of the Continental Divide in the mountains near Marias Pass.
One of the many remarkable aspects of the young bear’s journey is just how close it came to reaching the Missouri River. Had it ignored temptation near Loma, it would have only had to journey another mile to reach the mighty river. Madel believes that could have been the last people saw of the wandering bear for a very long time.
Below Loma, the Missouri enters a lengthy stretch of increasingly remote country that extends clear out into the Missouri River Breaks and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The area’s large cottonwood stands and dense riparian vegetation could easily hide a wandering bear. Miles of wild and winding side canyons on both sides of the river further isolate this remote land.
It used to be excellent grizzly bear habitat and could be again, Madel said. “A bear could get lost out there and establish a home range and survive,” he said.
Madel says stories like that of the Loma bear are likely to get more familiar. Grizzly bear managers have seen an increase in the number of grizzly sows with young expanding their range farther out on the plains, an almost sure sign the great bear is establishing a toehold. Madel said young grizzlies that learn from their mothers that the prairies offer abundant food sources like buffalo berry and chokecherry are far more apt to continue living in these spots.
“It’s more about learned behavior,” he said. “We’re going to see that more and more.”
The movement by grizzlies on the plains isn’t an entirely new occurrence, said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. From his office at the University of Montana in Missoula, Servheen said the bears have been reoccupying these old haunts for the past several decades. He said more tolerant attitudes on the part of ranchers and other local residents on the Front has allowed the population of grizzlies occupying the high plains just east of the mountains to increase from nearly none just several decades ago to perhaps as many as 70 to 80 today. “Thirty or forty years ago the bears were persecuted when they came out of the mountains,” he said.
Whether people living in these potential new grizzly ranges farther away from the Front become similarly accustomed to living with the bears will remain to be seen.
Servheen said the federal government’s grizzly recovery program has helped improve mortality control and habitat management issues along the Front. “We’ve tried to build tolerance with the people that live, work and recreate with bears,” he explained. “Those things together result in fewer mortalities, which results in more cub production and more bears.”
For some time, Servheen has been saying he can foresee the day when bears will reach the Missouri, which nearly occurred this summer. Now, he says he can envision a day when the area’s more remote sections may even provide permanent habitat for a handful of bears. “The Missouri Breaks might offer some good potential for grizzly bears,” he said.
Officials say the presence of so many bears on the plains means that activities like hunting in thick shrub fields may be something that’s best to avoid from now on. Plains grizzlies use these habitats as places to bed down during the daylight hours. Just this fall, a pheasant hunter from Alaska got the surprise of his life when he jumped a grizzly sow and her cubs in a thick mosaic of buffalo berry, cottonwoods and interspersed meadow north of Choteau called the Eldorado Grove. The hunter killed the charging grizzly with the third and final shot from his shotgun. Bear managers say the death of the bear may have been avoided had the hunter been carrying nonlethal pepper spray.
Madel, a firm believer in the value of carrying bear spray, has successfully retarded bear charges three times in his line of work. The broad cloud the spray lays down is a very effective deterrent, even during erratic wind, he said. “Carry bear spray on your belt at all times,” he advises.
Servheen believes the bears showing up on the prairie are responding more to the presence of excellent habitat rather than simply being pushed out of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall wilderness complex because those area’s grizzly bear capacity has been reached. “We don’t know if the population is at carrying capacity,” he said.
A recent hair-snaring study in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem indicated the presence of approximately 765 grizzlies. And this growing population of bears isn’t just spreading out onto the plains, Servheen said. “We do know that the population is large and that it is expanding its range because we see bears in more and more places,” he said. “Not just on the Front, but to the south and to the west.”
Grizzlies leaving the southern end of the Bob Marshall country are beginning to show up on the south side of U.S. Interstate 90 near places like Drummond, Anaconda, Phillipsburg and in Rock Creek. In 2005, a bear tied to the northern grizzly population was found dead from an arrow in the Mount Haggin Wildlife Management Area adjacent to the 158,615-acre Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area. Just last year, a young male grizzly was captured near Drummond after it raided an unprotected beehive.
These bears are the leading edge of what folks like Jamie Jonkel, Montana’s Region 2 Grizzly Bear Management Specialist, believe is the recolonization of much of western Montana by grizzlies. For now, it’s mostly males with a touch of wanderlust moving out.
“They’re slowly trying to recolonize former ranges,” said Jonkel, the son of noted bear researcher Chuck Jonkel of Missoula. “Soon we’ll start seeing a few females setting up shop.”
In Jonkel’s region, which covers notable areas in western Montana like the Bitterroot and Sapphire mountains and the Rattlesnake Wilderness above Missoula, the hotspot for grizzly activity is the rural Blackfoot-Clearwater valley on the southern end of the Bob Marshall country. Still, he has little doubt that at least a few grizzlies are living unseen in spots like Rock Creek and parts of the Clark Fork drainage.
“I would say there are a handful of bears south of Interstate 90 trying to eke out a living,” he said. “There’s some pretty good habitat down there for them.”
And as long as they stay out of trouble, Jonkel said, Montana officials have no intention of stopping these grizzlies from staking out new home ranges.
“We don’t treat them any differently than the bears up north,” he said. “Right now we’re telling people to expect bears pretty much anywhere in western Montana.”
There’s also evidence that a few grizzlies are occupying portions of the upper Rattlesnake Wilderness. Jonkel said they’ve found evidence along the crests of high alpine ridges in the Rattlesnake where something has been digging up biscuit root. He said that’s a behavior only grizzlies are known for.
Back out on the Front, the movements of bears on the plains is being aided by several decades of work by government agencies and private land trusts like The Nature Conservancy to secure valuable private lands as permanent open space.
This program is designed to make sure wide-ranging species like the unique plains grizzly continue to have room to roam years into the future. To date, The Nature Conservancy and its partners have preserved 146,039 acres of private ranch lands along the Front through conservation easements and outright purchases.
Dave Hanna, the Conservancy’s Rocky Mountain Front Science and Stewardship Director based in Choteau, said his organization is working to identify and preserve those places that provide the great bears with the cover and food sources they need to keep flourishing on the Front. “It’s the only place in the lower 48 where you still have bears using a grassland habitat and that’s a pretty special thing,” Hanna said.
Not long after Madel transported the Loma bear to the opposite side of the Continental Divide on the Flathead National Forest, the seasoned grizzly bear manager witnessed something that indicates just how attractive the plains habitat may still be for bears.
Madel got a call from one of his professional counterparts who’s responsible for managing bears on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation east of Glacier National Park. The bear manager had picked up a signal from the Loma bear. Soon after, he lost the bear’s signal farther east in the Marias River country, which has seen reports of grizzly activity trickle in during the past few years.
“He went north and east and got out into very open grassland habitat,” Madel said.
He said the bear likely ended up somewhere along the lower Marias River. “I assume he went farther and farther east,” Madel said.