SCIENTISTS HAVE LONG SUPPOSED GRIZZLY POPULATIONS BETWEEN ECOSYSTEMS MIGHT LINK UP. DAVID STALLING WONDERS WHEN IT WILL HAPPEN.
Like an extinguished star in a constellation, grizzly bears have been presumed absent from the Bitterroot Ecosystem of central Idaho and western Montana for generations. Rumors of grizzlies in the Bitterroot have circulated for years. Reports have often been met with the same sort of skepticism as Bigfoot sightings.
The Bitterroot Valley in western Montana sits along the Bitterroot River, between the Bitterroot range and the Sapphire Mountains. Because the valley consists of a lot of public wildlands with productive habitat, the valley could provide a critical corridor linking grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem to the isolated population of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – boosting the long-term viability of wild grizzlies.
Such a connection would mean the end of two isolated island clusters of bears set unto themselves and allow for, potentially, a contiguous bear population stretching from the Red Desert of Wyoming to the U.S.-Canada border—in other words, a region of grizzlies which would be foundational to true lasting bear recovery in the Lower 48.
Large numbers of grizzlies inhabited the Bitterroot Valley in the past; Native Americans and early European explorers passed on lots of stories. In 1932, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported the killing of what was widely considered “the last known grizzly in the Bitterroot Valley.”
But grizzly tracks were confirmed in 1946 – perhaps from a bear that was passing through? Then, in 1998, a Forest Service packer reported seeing a grizzly in the North Fork of Fish Creek, and soon after that another Forest Service employee claimed to have found grizzly tracks. The Forest Service reported that both sightings were from “experienced woodsmen and can be considered objective observers.”
More tantalizing evidence trickled in. In 2002, a grizzly reportedly passed through the Sapphire Mountains from Rock Creek and into the Bitterroot Valley. In 2007, a black-bear hunter mistakenly killed a 400 pound male grizzly in Idaho’s Clearwater drainage, just north of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, and within 40 miles of the Bitterroot Valley. Map assembled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showing the different island populations of grizzly bears in the northern Rockies.DNA linked that grizzly to the Selkirk Ecosystem, indicating that he traveled at least 140 straight-line miles south. Six years later, a 20-year old female grizzly known as “Ethyl” took her GPS radio collar on a 2,800 mile walkaboutthat brought her into the northwest part of the Bitterroot Valley. Ethyl also safely crossed Interstate 90 twice.
With grizzlies expanding more and more into their historical ranges, it was just a matter of time before someone came up with more solid evidence of a grizzly in the Bitterroot.
That evidence finally came about just a few weeks ago, on Saturday, November 3, 2018: a young male grizzly (about 250 pounds), caught in a culvert trap, on a Bitterroot Valley golf course. On the Whitetail Golf Course bordering the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, just north of Stevensville, Montana, an unknown bear had been snapping flagsticks and digging holes on the golf course. He left tracks and scat as evidence, but, understandably, everyone assumed the culprit was a black bear. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) set up a trap.
When golf pro Jason Lehtola showed up for work early Saturday morning, he heard noise coming from the trap and walked toward the trap from the back side to check it out. The bear aggressively shook the trap and growled, startling Jason. He backed off, got in his truck, and drove to the front of the trap where he could more clearly see the bear. It had huge claws. When he called Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks to report the captured grizzly, he was met with skepticism. But the proof was in the trap.
When golf pro Jason Lehtola showed up for work early Saturday morning, he heard noise coming from the trap and walked toward the trap from the back side to check it out. The bear aggressively shook the trap and growled. When he called Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks to report the captured grizzly, he was met with skepticism. But the proof was in the trap.
The bear was relocated to the lower Blackfoot Valley, northeast of Missoula. Responded state Bear Management Specialist Jamie Jonkel, son of the late famous bear researcher Dr. Charles Jonkel: “It wasn’t the first grizzly to enter the Bitterroot Valley, and it won’t be the last.”
For bear advocates, that’s good news, and confirms what was already suspected. It brought to mind my own small part of past efforts to prove the presence of grizzlies in the Bitterroot.
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