State of the Grizzly

State of the Grizzly Now that the Yellowstone bears have been delisted, what’s in store for Montana’s other grizzly populations? By Christine Paige

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
March–April 2008

We’ve got a bear,” says Tim Manley, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks grizzly management specialist, as he noses his truck up a dirt track toward a steel culvert trap for a better view. A large, dark shape sits hunkered in the trap’s dim tunnel, shying away from the biologists peering in. Manley and his field crew spend each summer and fall trapping and tracking grizzlies in northwestern Montana. Their work is part of a long-term study to determine whether the population is increasing, decreasing, or stable. Like this mature sow, grizzly populations in much of Montana appear to be in good shape. The federal government has already removed one population from its list of threatened species and has begun looking closely at delisting another. What Manley and other bear specialists learn from this female bear and others like it will help guide management decisions on how best to conserve a species that nearly disappeared from the lower 48 states but in recent years has made a steady—and in some cases surprising—comeback.

Biologists estimate that before European settlement 50,000 to 100,000 grizzly bears, also known as brown bears, ranged from Mexico to Alaska. Roughly half the population lived south of Canada, from the West Coast east to the central Great Plains. By the 1970s, only 2 percent of the grizzly’s historic range remained intact in the lower 48 states—most of it in Montana. Agricultural land conversion coupled with predator control had reduced the grizzly population to an estimated 1,000 bears south of the Canada border. In 1975 the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as federally threatened. Montana, containing the largest grizzly population in the contiguous United States, continued a limited grizzly hunt until 1991. Environmental groups successfully petitioned to halt the season, arguing that the state lacked data to prove hunting harvest was not harming the population.

Today approximately 1,400 grizzly bears survive in five ecosystems in Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, sustained by habitat on public and private lands. The Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems support the largest populations, while small numbers hang on in the Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk, and North Cascade (Washington) systems. The Selway–Bitterroot region is designated as a sixth recovery zone, though there has been no verified evidence of a resident grizzly population there for more than half a century.

First off the list
When the species was listed, biologists estimated that fewer than 200 grizzlies remained in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which spans Yellow­stone and Grand Teton national parks, parts of four national forests, and other public lands in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. At the time, no one guessed that in three decades the population would rebound. But after years of cooperative recovery efforts, and despite being isolated from populations to the north, the Yellowstone population has rebounded, growing at 4 to 7 percent per year in the last decade. Today 550 to 600 bears inhabit a 14,000-square-mile expanse of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Having met all the criteria set under a federal recovery plan, the population was removed from the list of federally threatened species in March 2007.

Delisting has not exactly left Yellowstone grizzlies out in the cold. If anything, a federally approved conservation strategy, state grizzly management plans, and ongoing population monitoring overseen by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team focus even more resources on the recovered population than before recovery. State and federal biologists conduct annual surveys for females with cubs, monitor population trends, track reported mortalities, sample DNA to detect bear movement, measure the condition of captured bears, and monitor the status of natural bear foods. Charles Schwartz is the study team leader. He says tracking these indicators provides greater insight into the population’s status and an early warning of problems.

Some view the Yellowstone delisting as premature. In 2007 several conservation groups sued to overturn the decision. They argue that the Yellowstone population remains significantly vulnerable to genetic isolation from other populations, habitat loss from rapid residential and energy development, and threats from climate change to grizzly habitat and food. Without the force of federal protection, they warn, the Yellowstone recovery will unravel.

There is little question that one key food source—whitebark pine—is threatened by complex changes in the ecosystem. Global warming, white-pine blister rust, and mountain pine bee­tles seriously threaten the whitebark. Its oil-rich pine cone seeds are essential for fattening bears in years when other natural foods are scarce. If changes in food availability cause Yellowstone grizzly numbers to drop, the bear could be relisted as a threatened species. Excessive bear mortality, declining habitat quality, and other triggers could also prompt a re­assessment.

Montana’s other robust grizzly population lives in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. This diverse, rugged, and largely roadless area covers roughly 9,600 square miles. It encompasses the Bob Marshall, Great Bear, Mission Mountain, and Scapegoat wilderness areas, as well as Glacier National Park and surrounding national forests, private forests, and tribal lands. The ecosystem is considered the greatest stronghold for grizzlies in the lower 48. It butts up against the grizzly bear populations of southeastern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta, a connection critical for the long-term viability of populations on both sides of the U.S.­–Canada border.

Grizzlies in this deeply forested ecosystem are difficult to count. For years, biologists estimated the population at between 600 and 700 bears. Recently they have established a more accurate figure. Kate Kendall, a research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, supervised a 2004 population survey, the largest of its type ever undertaken. Researchers collected more than 34,000 samples of black and grizzly bear hair, snagged on baited barbed-wire enclosures, for DNA analysis. According to Kendall, it may still be a year before the final population estimate is established. “We’re doing everything we can to ensure that the data and analysis hold up under the most intense scientific and legal scrutiny,” she says.

The DNA project will provide a baseline population number, but managers also need to know, as a prerequisite for delisting, if the population is increasing or at least stable. Rick Mace, FWP grizzly research biologist, spearheads a long-term population-trend monitoring project for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Starting in 2004, Mace and FWP grizzly management specialists began trapping, radio-collaring, and tracking female grizzlies to monitor the bears’ survival and cub production. “Right now, the population is above the minimum size needed to be viable,” says Mace. “But there needs to be both a viable population size and a positive or stable population trend. If the trend is declining, we’ve got a problem.” Aside from Mace’s study, the number of bears showing up on the fringes of the ecosystem suggests an expanding population. Grizzlies are now commonly seen along the Rocky Mountain Front from Canada to Montana Highway 200, sometimes ranging into historical prairie habitats to the east.

The smaller ecosystems
Montana’s smallest grizzly population finds refuge in the 2,600-square-mile Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem. Only 35 to 45 bears survive in the ecosystem, and even this tiny population is divided. Roughly 25 to 30 bears live in the northern part of the zone, contiguous with grizzly habitat in Canada and Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains. Roughly 10 to 15 bears seem to be isolated south of the Kootenai River. So far, DNA and telemetry studies have revealed no bear movement between the two areas.

In small populations, every bear death greatly increases the risk of the entire population dying out. The U.S. Forest Service has closed many old logging roads in national forests to provide secure bear habitat, but the closures are fought by off-highway vehicle riders who recreate on the routes. Other threats to the Cabinet-Yaak population include encroaching residential development in the scenic mountain valleys, growing traffic on U.S. Highway 2, and a railway line with 40 or more trains each day. FWP recently hired a new bear specialist based in Libby to work with landowners on conserving private land habitat and reducing bear conflicts. The agency is trying to give the Cabinet grizzlies a big boost by transplanting bears from other ecosystems into the most remote reaches of the range. In the early 1990s, biologists relocated four female grizzlies to the Cabinets from British Columbia, hoping the sows would mate with resident males. Recent DNA testing from hair snares revealed that at least one of the females produced two female cubs, which later reproduced, resulting in six or seven grizzlies that are direct descendants of the early transplants. With funding from the FWP Foundation, biologists have recently augmented the population with two female grizzlies from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. “We can recover bears in these smaller systems,” says Chris Servheen, coordinator of the USFWS Grizzly Bear Recovery Program, “but it takes a different type of effort and it takes time.”

Spanning 5,600 square miles of central Idaho and western Montana, the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem contains the largest area of designated wilderness in the Rocky Mountains. Historically, grizzlies were widespread and abundant there, yet for 60 years no verified evidence of the species existed. That changed in September 2007, when a black bear hunter mistakenly shot a young male grizzly on upper Kelly Creek in the northern Bitterroot Mountains, 3 miles west of the Montana–Idaho border. The Kelly Creek bear was the first confirmed grizzly in the Selway-Bitterroots since 1946. Genetic analysis revealed that the animal had come from the Selkirk Mountains, 140 miles and across two major highways to the north.

Remote and still rich in grizzly habitat, the Selway-Bitterroot presents the best prospect for expanding the bear’s recovery in the lower 48 and connecting Yellowstone grizzlies with populations to the north. After years of study, planning, and public comment, the USFWS decided to restore grizzlies to the Selway-Bitterroots by establishing a “nonessential experimental” population of 25 bears over five years. The plan was set aside by the Department of Interior in 2001, putting reintroduction on hold. But no one told the bears, which could move to the area on their own. “How grizzlies get to the Selway-Bitterroots has huge management implications,” says Chris Smith, FWP chief of staff and chair of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. “If grizzlies recolonize the Bit­terroots on their own—and there’s no reason to expect they won’t—they bring the full weight of the ESA with them as a protected threatened species. That would mean very limited management options. On the other hand, if grizzlies are reintroduced as a ‘nonessential experimental population,’ the states would have much more management flexibility, as has been the case with wolves in Yellowstone.”

A single bear does not constitute a population, but where one has traveled others may follow. The USFWS, with help from the U.S. Forest Service, FWP, and Idaho Fish and Game, plans to carry out a new field survey of the northern Bitterroots in 2008, using lure stations with hair snares for DNA analysis.

Maintaining connections
Montana’s interest in seeing grizzlies return to the Bitterroots reflects the state’s long-standing commitment to conserving and managing a secure and recovered population throughout the state’s western region. “FWP envisions management programs that preserve biological connections between all its grizzly populations and maintain links with populations in Canada and eventually the Bitterroots,” says Arnie Dood, who coordinates the FWP Threatened and Endangered Species Program. Over the past several years, the agency has produced a comprehensive grizzly management plan that will guide management over the next decade. “We’re trying to fit grizzly bears into western Montana as a valued wildlife species, just like the mountain lion and the black bear,” says Dood.

That may be a tight fit in some areas. As the great bears expand their range in western Montana—either on their own or with help from conservation agencies—they increasingly run into a two-legged species expanding its range into the same scenic mountainous landscapes. People are the primary cause of grizzly deaths in Montana. Grizzlies are killed by highway traffic, trains, poachers, and hunters who mistake them for legal black bears. Housing developments and accompanying roads diminish habitat and restrict grizzly movement between ecosystems. People and development bring more pet food, bird feeders, garbage cans, and picnic coolers into grizzly territory. When natural foods are scarce, these attractants draw grizzlies near people and livestock, forcing state and federal agents to kill problem bears.

Far fewer grizzlies receive that death sentence thanks to Manley and FWP’s four other bear specialists stationed across western Montana. The specialists work with communities in each ecosystem to educate homeowners and recreationists on how to properly secure food and gar­bage. In addition, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and Defenders of Wildlife run a program that helps communities and individuals install bear-resistant dumpsters and garbage cans. “During the six months bears are outside their dens, they become vacuum cleaners searching for the highest-calorie foods they can find,” says Sterling Miller, NWF grizzly specialist.

Grizzly predation on livestock is another problem, particularly on the Rocky Mountain Front and around Yellowstone National Park. Wildlife biologists and bear specialists remove grizzly repeat offenders and work with ranch­ers to fence livestock and eliminate garbage dumps. Defenders of Wildlife compensates ranchers for livestock lost to grizzlies as a way to reduce the economic burden on those who live with growing predator populations. To reduce conflicts, the National Wildlife Federation buys, from willing sellers, grazing leases where grizzlies habitually harass livestock. The organization provides ranchers fair compensation, allowing them to secure alternate grazing allotments elsewhere, while the problem allotments are retired from grazing.

FWP, other public agencies, and nonprofit land trusts also work with private landowners to protect habitat and linkage areas using easements and other conservation tools. Wildlife crossings built at highway trouble spots re­duce animal mortalities and increase public safety. For example, where U.S. Highway 93 runs through the Flathead Indian Reservation, roughly 50 wildlife crossings—mainly bridges and rectangular culverts—will be constructed over the next several years. As if endorsing the project, a female grizzly was seen in fall 2007 using a newly constructed underpass near Ravalli, just south of the National Bison Range. “We’re seeing an evolution away from arguing about status and litigation toward finding solutions on the ground to make living with grizzlies safe for both people and bears,” says Smith.

As bear numbers grow and grizzlies return to habitats they have not occupied for decades, the challenge to both people and bears to find ways to live together increases. “Grizzly bears will always be a complex and controversial species to manage,” says Smith. “But I’m encouraged by the attitude I see, the pride Montanans take in having healthy grizzly populations, and their desire to accommodate these great animals.”Bear bullet

Christine Paige is an independent wildlife biologist and science writer who lives in the Bitterroot Valley.