Despite the robust recovery of grizzly bears in the forested mountains of Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and the surrounding landscape, the great bear’s future across the region remains far from certain.
The recovery zone spanning the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Yaak River basin and areas in between— about one quarter of the size of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem — has about one 20th of the grizzly population, growing at about half the rate.
The Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear population contained 45 bears in 2012 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last conducted a population estimate. Wayne Kasworm, a grizzly bear biologist for the agency, estimates that population at about 50 today, half of the 100-bear recovery target identified after the population’s 1975 listing as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Kasworm estimates the current population growth rate at 1.4 percent per year. On average, that’s a net gain of less than one additional bear annually, making human-caused mortalities a serious challenge to the population’s continued existence. Just this May, a young male grizzly was found dead from a gunshot wound at the Yaak Falls Campground. Wildlife officials are still investigating the poaching incident.
Still, he’s optimistic that the mood toward grizzlies has changed substantially with increased outreach and education. From the late 1990s through 2006, the population dropped precipitously due to human-caused mortalities. In part, he credits the addition of wildlife management specialist Kim Annis to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Libby office in 2007 for helping turn the tide.
“I think some of her work with the public helped, trying to find solutions to conflicts, loaning out [bear-proof] garbage cans, setting up electric fencing, [and] we’ve been working with the county on building Dumpster sites with fencing to keep bears out,” he said. “A lot of those things came together and helped turn the situation around, as well as a public that is becoming a little more sensitive to bears and not as willing to shoot or shoot at a bear they see.”
Local anti-grizzly sentiment also has impacted the rate of augmentation for the struggling population. Officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks team up with the federal agency to periodically capture and move bears into the Cabinet-Yaak from along the Flathead drainage in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, where grizzlies are more densely distributed.
“The program is still very controversial in terms of the general public, so we haven’t moved very fast with it. Instead, we’re moving a bear or two every year or every two years,” Kasworm said.
The 25-year-old augmentation program has seen its ups and downs. In the West Cabinet Mountains this June, one of the transported grizzlies was found dead. It was a 3-year old female, and although the carcass was mostly decomposed, wildlife officials determined the cause of her death was natural, owing to several large puncture wounds found on the top of the skull, and the remote location of her remains along the north fork of Ross Creek.
Overall, the Cabinet-Yaak population has been augmented with 17 bears. Although several have died and others simply left for their previous homes across the valley, the slow-moving project has also shed some glimmers of hope. The remaining Cabinets-based augmentation bear is still alive, and has been tracked as far north as Cedar Creek.
“One [bear] in particular that we put into the Cabinets as part of the original augmentation effort in the ’90s, we know from monitoring she has produced at least nine first-generation offspring, and those are responsible for at least eight second-generation offspring,” he said. “I think we can use that aspect to point to at least some success in the program.”
And given the barely positive growth rate for the Cabinet-Yaak population, the augmentation program may be the only thing keeping it extant. Kasworm moved to Libby to work with the region’s grizzlies in 1983. Five years later, the agency made its initial estimate of the grizzly population: 15 bears. Looking back on the data he and other biologists have gleaned since then, he expects the number was actually less than 10.
“It’s important that we recognize there will be some bumps along the road, but also recognize that it’s an incremental program, where we’re taking small steps but are also seeing some progress,” Kasworm said.
Regardless of the bears’ overall improvement in the past decade, he believes that the local human population will ultimately determine whether they can achieve the 100-bear recovery target, despite the geographical constraints of the relatively small, isolated ecosystem.
“I feel pretty confident that the recovery zone can support 100 bears. The bigger question is not what the recovery zone can support, but what the local people are willing to tolerate.”
Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.