grizzly bear

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan designated Idaho’s Bitterroot Ecosystem, which includes parts of the Gospel Hump Wilderness, the Selway-Bitterroot, and Frank Church-River of No Return areas, a key recovery zone they were particularly hoping would be repopulated with grizzlies. The animals have been absent from Bitterroot for decades after once being abundant there. A hunter killed a grizzly on the fringes of the Bitterroot recovery area in 2007 that had been briefly drawn to the zone by a black bear baiting trap. It was the first time a bear had officially been spotted there since 1932.

Until now.

A lone grizzly has made its way south from the Cabinet Mountains in Montana and is now successfully navigating the Bitterroots, a huge first step in the recovery of the species there, assuming this bear is not shot like the baited visitor in 2007. This bear, however, seems determined to make a home in Idaho.

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The three-year-old male was released in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains in 2018 and started booking it south almost immediately. After crossing the Clark Fork into Idaho, the bear, which is wearing a tracking collar, was recaptured and released back into the Cabinets. After wintering in Montana, it hightailed it south once again this spring, emerging into the Bitterroot recovery zone in June.

The bear has since been captured on remote wilderness cameras.

So far, the wanderer has mostly avoided human contact, a good plan since the biggest threat to grizzlies are people.

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“Most of the places he has appeared to have gone have been out of the way,” said Clay Hickey, regional wildlife manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “It’s all tough country. If you were trying to get from point A to B, it’s not how you would choose to go.”

bitterroot ecosystem

The Clearwater National Forest in Idaho contains a section of the Bitterroot recovery area, a bear-friendly habitat. Photo: USFWS

This is big news because it marks the first time a grizzly has organically made its way into the Bitterroot recovery area and, thus far, survived. It made a wise choice to relocate in the Bitterroots. The area is very remote and loaded with excellent bear habitat. Berries are plentiful, as are grasses, forbs, even herds of elk. It’s thought to be the best place in the contiguous U.S. for grizzlies to make a comeback. Plenty of land and food for plenty of bears.

Which there once were. Trappers killed hundreds of grizzlies in the Bitterroot ecosystem in the early 20th century. Today, biologists think the area has the resources to support at least 300 grizzlies. There’d be some displacement of black bear populations, most likely, as the area is thick with black bears now. Though, that would likely be a return to historic normalcy for the competing species.

It comes at a time when the recovery of grizzly bear populations seems feasible on a wide scale, though not without controversy. Hunters argue that grizzlies have recovered to the point of making trophy hunts viable again. Ranchers in Montana are wary of the growing grizzly numbers which they feel threaten livestock. There are efforts, nascent efforts, but efforts nonetheless, to return the grizzly bear to California. Despite the animal being front and center on the state flag, the last bear was seen in California in 1924 (near Kings Canyon National Park). Some advocates want to see bears back in California where they once numbered 15,000 animals (the entire population of grizzlies in the lower 48 today is thought to be 1,500 animals), while plenty of groups want to keep the Golden State bear free to keep livestock and hikers safe.

Map of the recovery area. Map: USFWS

Of course, ranchers in Montana and California established their businesses and traditions only after grizzlies had been effectively exterminated—historically, these animals have lived in the West in large numbers.

Hence, the optimism the bear in the Bitterroots is generating among bear supporters. When bears return to places they’ve been driven out of, it can indicate a healthy ecosystem that can support the animals. Not only that, but the presence of grizzlies too can help bring balance to an ecosystem.

In the meantime, local biologists are reminding people in north-central Idaho to practice safe bear practices, especially including food storage, and are pleading with hunters to avoid any temptation to bag the bear as a trophy if they see it. Grizzly bears are still federally protected, but they were too back when the previous Bitterroot visitor was killed.

Whether this bear is the first of many remains to be seen. But the ecosystem is ready.

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Top photo: Glacier NPS


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