Officials from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks have confirmed reports that a grizzly bear spent time in the Shields Valley earlier this week. A spokesperson for FWP described the sighting on July 10 as evidence that grizzly bears are expanding their ranges outside of recovery areas anchored by Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
Morgan Jacobsen with FWP said landowners provided photographs of the bear to FWP officials, who also used tracks and a hair sample to confirm the bear was a grizzly. It’s estimated to be between 1 and 3 years old.
If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removes NCDE and Yellowstone grizzlies from the United States’ list of endangered and threatened species, Montana will assume full management authority of those bears — something it hasn’t had since Lower 48 grizzlies became one of the first species to join the Endangered Species List in 1975. Stakeholders weigh in on the state’s management plan.
The photographs were taken Monday on the southern end of the Shields Valley, about halfway between Clyde Park and Interstate 90, Jacobsen said. Grizzlies, which were once widespread throughout much of the western United States, were largely eradicated from that region of Montana in the 20th century.
“This is the first confirmed sighting in this spot for grizzly bears,” Jacobsen said. “That being said, there are grizzly bears in fairly close proximity to this area already. They are already in the Little Belts, they are in the Gallatins, and the Absaroka-Beartooths are fairly close by.”
The bear was later seen near Highway 89, about 12 miles southwest of the Monday sighting. It was also captured on a trail camera near Clyde Park Thursday morning, Jacobsen said, adding that no conflicts with the bear have been reported.
Jacobsen said FWP is unsure if the grizzly wandered south from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem or north from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. A genetic analysis of the hair sample collected from a barbed-wire fence could shed more light on the bear’s origin.
Chris Servheen, a biologist who led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery effort for 35 years prior to his retirement in 2016, estimated the bear is as likely to come down from the NCDE population as it is to have wandered north from Yellowstone.
Earlier this week, FWP announced that the presence of a grizzly had also been confirmed in the Pryor Mountains of southeastern Montana, where they haven’t been documented in well over a century.
“Both instances illustrate what we know already, which is that grizzly bear populations continue to become denser and more widespread in the state,” Jacobsen said. “It’s becoming more and more likely that residents and recreationists will encounter grizzly bears in more places each year. It also underscores the need to be prepared and aware of their presence and to assume their presence in the state.”
Servheen said he’s encouraged by the sightings but also reluctant to read too much into them. It does underscore that bears can find lots of places to live successfully, he said, adding that subadult males in particular tend to range widely. Most won’t get into conflict with people, he said.
The agency’s announcement was welcomed by Republican officials, who’ve long sought to restore management of grizzly bears to state agencies. Environmentalists questioned whether USFWS is fulfilling the mandates of the Endangered Species Act and cast doubt on Montana’s ability to manage grizzlies sustainably.
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“They’re out doing their teenage bear thing,” he said. “They get kicked out by mom and they spend a couple of years trying to establish a range for themselves. … They may just go back.”
FWP is considering a plan to guide the state’s management of grizzlies if the federal government removes them from the list of threatened and endangered species. In February, USFWS announced that it’s considering petitions to remove protections from Yellowstone and NCDE bears forwarded by Montana and Wyoming. Servheen described the state’s plan as written with an overall “tone of intolerance.”
Servheen said he’s hopeful that the plan will be revised so that bears like the ones roaming through the Shields Valley and the Pryor Mountains can continue spending time in their historic range without fear of being killed. Tolerance for dispersing bears is particularly important since connectivity between established populations is a longtime management goal that will help secure their viability on the landscape, Servheen said.
“It’s good to see these native animals on the landscape,” he said. “This is good.”
FWP is hosting a “bear town hall” at the Big Timber Community Library at 7 p.m., on July 24. Wildlife officials and game wardens will talk about bear biology and management, provide information on conflict prevention, and answer questions. FWP encouraged local landowners to attend.
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