The Grizzly of Falls Creek

Myth meets reality on the Rocky Mountain Front. By Ben Long

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
November–December 2002

Bill Mosher rode his cattle ranch on the modern equivalent of a trusty steed—a four-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicle. Behind him sat Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks grizzly bear biologist Mike Madel, who jounced uncomfortably as the ATV’s chubby tires tumbled over rocks, ruts, and badger holes.

That autumn day in 1992, Mosher and Madel were riding along the upper Dearborn River southwest of Augusta, investigating the killing of one of Mosher’s calves. After surveying the kill site with Jim Stevens, a trapper with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal Control Program, they pieced the story together. The cows and calves had been feeding among lodgepole pine and aspen. A large male grizzly approached over a small rise, walking toward the stock until they spooked. One panicked calf plowed into a tree. The bear was on the calf in seconds, killing it with a bite to the neck.

After Madel and Stevens set cable foot snares around the carcass, Mosher and Madel headed back toward ranch headquarters aboard the four-wheeler. Suddenly, Mosher skidded to a halt.

Ahead of them was the grizzly, sprinting away. Its glossy, chocolate brown coat rippled over a muscular, dark hump and powerful hindquarters. Now and again, the bear looked over its shoulder.

“He ran like he expected us to start shooting at him at any moment. You could almost read the expression on his face,” Madel says. “It was like ‘Uh oh, they almost caught me.’”

That was one of the few glimpses Mike Madel ever caught of the Falls Creek male in the wild. Little did he know how intertwined his life would become with that of the grizzly—a bear destined to become a Montana legend.

The history of Montana—and of the entire American West—is full of legendary, stock-killing bears. In the 1890s, a grizzly named Two Toes roamed Swan Valley, gobbling up a small fortune in livestock before being hunted down. A pig-killer dubbed Old Terror roamed the Cabinet Mountains around 1900. Hunters reported firing 40 shots at Old Terror at close range. Journalists of the day credited the bear’s survival to its supernatural toughness, though in all likelihood it was due to the hunters’ poor marksmanship.

In an earlier era, the Falls Creek male could have become a similar legend: a full-blown, rip-snortin’ skull-smashin’ renegade, come down from the mountains to deliver holy hell on honest ranchers. But times had changed in Montana. Unlike other states, where people simply exterminated grizzly bears in places wherever the large predators killed livestock, Montana set a different goal in 1923 by defining the grizzly as a game species. Since then, the state has conserved the great bear while raising livestock on the same landscape.

Toward that end, Madel’s job is to help smooth the sometimes stormy relations between the Rocky Mountain Front’s ranchers and its grizzly bears. In essence, Madel is a problem-solver. When a bear smashes up commercial beehives, the FWP bear biologist helps the beekeeper erect an electric fence around the remaining hives. When livestock die naturally—say, during spring calving season— the carcasses will often lure bears out of the mountains and into trouble among the ranches. Madel and other FWP biologists collect the carcasses and redistribute them into remote areas.

Most grizzly bears, Madel says, prefer safer foods—such as plant roots and berries—to livestock. “With cattle, there’s substantial risk involved for the bear,” he explains. “Mother cows are good at protecting calves. I’ve watched cows rush toward both bears and wolves, driving them away from their calves.”

Imagine you’re a curious, young, 150-pound grizzly, approaching a cow and her calf. Suddenly the half-ton beast charges, ready to kick your fuzzy fanny back to the mountains. Most bears facing that once or twice learn to leave cows alone. Meanwhile, says Madel, most Rocky Mountain Front ranchers will tolerate occasional grizzly bears if the predators don’t cause costly depredations.Over the decades, Montana’s grizzly management strategy has worked well. The state contains the largest grizzly population in the contiguous United States, and statewide livestock losses remain at levels acceptable to most ranchers. Part of that success is due to ongoing research that helps scientists learn about bear behavior and movement. For instance, in the 1980s FWP biologist Keith Aune conducted radio telemetry research on Rocky Mountain Front grizzlies, learning the bears’ habits in an area primarily dedicated to ranching and farming. In May of 1985, he knew that a pair of grizzlies—a male and a female—was roaming near the Cuniff Creek area. It was breeding season, and the two were getting to know each other. In a patch of aspen, Aune carefully hid a foot snare, baited with meat. The male explored the bait but was too cagey to take it.

The female was not so cautious, however, and Aune nabbed her in a snare. After tranquilizing the three-year-old and taking her measurements, the research biologist also took from the trap site a sample of mud saturated with her urine. Aune used the pheromone-scented mudball as bait, and a few days later the male fell for it. Aune found the six-year-old grizzly securely held in a snare. After tranquilizing him, the research biologist fitted the bear with a radio collar, and, as he did the female, took measurements and tattooed an identification number on the animal’s gums. The male received the number 346. Later, he would also be known as the Falls Creek male.

These two particular bears did indeed kill cattle, the female in particular. Three times she killed stock, and three times state wildlife biologists caught her afterwards and hauled her into the mountains. But each time she returned to ranches and killed more livestock. Eventually, authorities determined the bear had to be eliminated. In 1988, a Montana hunter killed her in a tightly supervised hunt.

Meanwhile, following radio transmissions from the bear’s collar, biologists traced No. 346’s home range over 175 square miles around a prominent, north-south escarpment called Falls Creek Ridge. Mostly, the Falls Creek male stayed in the mountains, deep within the Scapegoat Wilderness, feeding on biscuitroot and other plants.

By autumn 1985 No. 346 had dropped his radio, preventing biologists from following his daily movements. But every so often, Madel would receive a call from a rancher who had found a calf or yearling that had been killed the previous night and wanted the biologist to investigate. Often, Madel figured it had to be No. 346, because the tracks were the same width—61.4 inches—as those of the Falls Creek male.

“It’s not like he killed calves every year,” says Madel. “But every other year or so I would get another call.” (Madel notes that each year only three or four calves are documented as having been killed by grizzlies on the Rocky Mountain Front south of the Blackfoot Reservation. That’s in an area covering more than 1,800 square miles, where thousands of cattle range.)

When a rancher reports a fresh kill, a FWP biologist and USDA trapper investigate the kill site. If they agree the culprit is a grizzly, they set snares or culvert traps. Once captured, the bear is then relocated or, if it has been particularly troublesome, killed. During the 1980s, several marauding grizzlies along the Rocky Mountain Front got caught, but not bear No. 346.

Throughout the rest of the 1980s and the ’90s, an average of roughly one cow, yearling, or calf was killed in No. 346’s home range each year. Ranchers increasingly attributed those kills to the Falls Creek male. In 2001 Tim Tew, manager of the LF Ranch, north of Augusta, told a newspaper reporter that over the previous 13 years No. 346 had cost him thousands of dollars a year in lost beef. Bill Mosher told a reporter he had lost at least 21 head to that one grizzly. A USDA official credited the Falls Creek bear with killing some $200,000 worth of beef. (The conservation group Defenders of Wildlife reimbursed ranchers for verified stock lost to bears, which helped take some sting out of the depredations.)

Those large depredation figures are the ranchers’. The biologists have their own. While conceding that roughly one-third of the cattle killed by bears are never found or cannot be confirmed, Madel credits the Falls Creek male with killing a total of 21 calves, 5 yearlings, and 1 cow. If all those animals had made it to market, he says, their total value would have been about $16,600. That’s no small loss, but it’s less than one-tenth of the figure trumpeted in the press.

Aune, Madel’s bear research colleague, contends that media accounts of the Falls Creek male made the grizzly larger than life. “That bear became mythologized,” says Aune. “It became the bear of that country. People lost sight of the fact that there were other bears there, including other big males that we know occasionally killed livestock. Everything got pinned on [No.] 346.”

Though biologists maintain that the Falls Creek grizzly didn’t kill nearly as much livestock as reported, the bear did add to its notoriety by eluding capture for more than a decade. The rules of the federal Endangered Species Act prevented trappers from pursuing No. 346 on the Lewis and Clark National Forest. But whenever the bear killed on a private ranch, trappers did their best to nab it. The bear always got away. “We just couldn’t catch him,” Madel says. “There were many, many attempts. Whenever anyone would [set traps on a] kill site, the bear would just leave and not return.”By 2001 the Falls Creek male was growing old—about 22 years, biologists estimated— and much less wary. In late April of that year, cows were calving on the LF Ranch. Though it was nearly Easter, snow covered the ground and bitter winds blew off the mountains. Tew herded the pregnant cows into the protection of a cottonwood creek bottom.

On Good Friday morning, he found three slain calves, evidentally killed by a bear. He called Madel, who set traps near the kill site and gave Tew a supply of noise-making “cracker shells” for the ranch manager’s shotgun.

The next day Tew found another dead calf—along with big grizzly tracks. The cattle, too frightened to remain in the cottonwood bottom, moved up to the exposed slopes, where Tew feared the newborn calves risked hypothermia.

Later that day, while tending to his herd, Tew saw a big, dark grizzly eyeing a calf. The ranch manager scrambled out of his truck and, from about 50 yards away, blasted two cracker shells at the bear. Not until he fired a third round did the bear finally turn to leave.

On Easter Sunday, federal trappers set two foot snares and a culvert trap on the LF Ranch. By the following day the bear had killed two more calves. The baited traps were untouched.

Bears weren’t the only predators on the LF Ranch. Coyotes had been hanging around the calving area, attracted to the smell of afterbirth. On Tuesday federal animal control specialists flew over the area, shooting coyotes out of a helicopter while Madel inspected the bear traps he’d set previously. On one flight, the gunner spotted the tracks of a grizzly leading into a timbered ridge.

At this stage, no one knew if this bear was a repeat stock-killer, which might need to be dispatched, or one experimenting around cattle for the first time, which would only be captured and moved elsewhere. So the gunner traded his shotgun for a dart gun, loaded with immobilizing drugs. While Madel waited on the ground, the federal pilot skimmed low over the piney ridge and spotted the bear below. He banked and flew in closer, giving his gunner a clearer shot. The dart struck the bear in the rump. Getting a call from the plane, Madel and others scrambled to the scene, where they gave the groggy bear another dose of immobilizing drugs. Cautiously, they approached the still form. Certain it was unconscious, Madel lifted the bear’s lip. There, faintly on the gum, was the number that Aune had tattooed 15 years before: 346. The Falls Creek male was finally in hand.

The grizzly weighed 595 pounds, about 150 less than he weighed in his prime. He was 21 years old, with teeth worn and decayed.

“There was a change, both in his movements and in his wariness around people,” Madel says. As the bear’s teeth became pitted and worn, it may have been more difficult for him to survive on plant food. Perhaps a tender young calf was just the protein bonus he was looking for. But no one knows exactly why some bears grow bolder as they grow older.

As the grizzly lay at their feet, the federal and state wildlife officials weighed No. 346’s fate. Though a grizzly bear in the wild can live 30 years or more, many don’t make it to 15. This animal was long past his prime—and it had repeatedly killed livestock. Madel hitched the culvert trap to his pickup truck and drove south to Bozeman. There, No. 346 was reunited with Aune, the man who first caught the bear in 1985. Using a hypodermic the size of a toothpaste tube, Aune gave the great bear one last, lethal injection.

When the bear was dead, reporters interviewed the ranchers, who agreed it was time for No. 346 to be destroyed. But the ranchers also said a part of them would miss the old cuss. “It’s kind of sad,” Tew said at the time. “That old bugger’s been around a long time.”

There was a time when grizzlies were to be exterminated, not conserved. But over the past 80 years, Montana has worked hard to keep grizzlies and ranchers on the same landscape. Times have changed. Yet the human tendency to seek out a single culprit for a complex problem has not. The Falls Creek grizzly became legendary, larger than life. In the human imagination, this one bear became the source of all the depredation across 175 square miles of the Rocky Mountain Front.

“It seems human nature to want to find some individual to take the blame,” Aune says. “People think we can fix the problem simply by removing one bear. The truth is that when we pin the problems of cattle depredation on a single animal, we lose sight of the bigger picture of what is happening on the land. We miss the real message here. Some bears that have the opportunity to kill cows will take advantage of the opportunity. Killing one bear doesn’t erase that picture.”

And neither, adds Aune, will killing all bears. “This idea that we are going to totally eliminate conflicts is just inappropriate,” he says. “It’s just not going to happen. As long as we engage in human activity in grizzly bear habitat, there will be conflicts. We can minimize and mitigate conflicts, but that’s about it. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that. I don’t have a lot of cows grazing in grizzly country on the Rocky Mountain Front.”

And what of those who do? If grizzlies are allowed to roam cattle country, some will occasionally prey on livestock. The extent to which ranchers tolerate kills by future No. 346s—and how FWP manages those grizzlies—will likely determine the future of this great animal in the Front. Habitat, and our ability to share it, remains the key.Bear bullet

The Falls Creek grizzly is being mounted for display at the Boone and Crockett Club research center near Dupuyer.

Ben Long of Kalispell is the author of Great Montana Bear Stories (Riverbend Publishing).