As the lone grizzly bear expert for the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Region Four office, Mike Madel hasn’t had any problems keeping busy along the Rocky Mountain Front.
“It was a heck of a year,” he said during a presentation to regional grizzly experts Wednesday near Kalispell. “We had bears expanding way out into the plains again, and further than we’ve ever had them.”
This year, Madel’s office responded to 63 reports of grizzly bear conflicts, of which 38 were confirmed. That’s nearly a threefold increase from the past two years, and the 12 cases of grizzlies preying on livestock was four times the number in 2014.
The range of grizzly bears along Montana’s Northern Continental Divide has roughly doubled since they received federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, and much of that new territory has been east of the Rockies.
Grizzlies are increasingly present on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, often following the winding, tree-lined drainages that extend east from the mountains.
Even Great Falls might not be immune to the encroaching bears for long.
This year, Madel said a grizzly was spotted in the town of Vaughn, just 16 miles northwest of Great Falls along Interstate 15. A problem bear was relocated from the plains to Frozen Lake, near the British Columbia border, and immediately began the 178-mile trek back to where it was captured.
Chris Servheen, the grizzly recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acknowledged the bears’ eastward trend, but cautioned against drawing conclusions based on one year.
“Every year is different in a natural system — things aren’t ever the same from year to year,” he said. “I think it’s a gradual thing, and if you get bears in places where people aren’t used to living with them, it gets complicated.”
Incidents of grizzly encounters typically spike in the fall months as their push to fatten up for the winter denning season kicks into overdrive. And the bears were particularly emboldened this year, as Western Montana experienced record drought and heat, resulting in a dismal berry crop. Berries can make up half of a grizzly’s annual diet, depending on where they live.
Madel said the chokecherry crop along the Front was especially poor.
“It didn’t totally fail, but it was early and then it was gone,” Madel said. “We had bears searching for alternative foods all over the pace, and with the expanding grizzly bear population, bears are expanding their home ranges like we’ve never seen before.”
A delisting of the local population is likely years away, but Servheen is guiding efforts to delist another grizzly population in the Yellowstone area, which is nearly the size of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
After that population is delisted, he said hunting could be employed to manage the bears in more problematic areas outside the park.
“There’s more flexibility in some areas the further you get from the core areas,” he said. “We’re not going to persecute bears just because they’re in a faraway place, but we recognize there might be more management flexibility in some places.”
Grizzly bear biologist Cecily Costello noted, however, that the proportion of great bears who tangle with humans and their livestock is much smaller than it seems.
“Eighty percent of captured bears had no history of management,” she said during Wednesday’s meeting. “In any given year, there’s only 5 percent of the bears that are involved in a conflict.”
Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.