Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers ways to reintroduce grizzly bears into the Bitterroot ecosystem, both biologists and politicians are encouraging plans to allow the bears to move in on their own.

On Tuesday, more than two-dozen conservation organizations and scientists released the details of a citizen alternative that they sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during public scoping on options for restoring grizzly bears to the Bitterroot ecosystem. The public comment period closed on Monday.

The citizen alternative encourages the agency to enable natural grizzly recovery through migration from other ecosystems rather than human-aided translocation. They point out that attempts to repopulate the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem with bears translocated from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem have mostly failed. Grizzlies either found their way back to the NCDE or were killed, often by poachers. Only three of 22 transplanted bears went on to reproduce in the Cabinet Mountains, according to biologist David Mattson.

The citizen proposal emphasized that “This is not a No Action alternative,” because it calls for the agency to do several things to improve the odds of successful migration. The alternative calls for reducing the risks of bear migration by identifying connectivity corridors between ecosystems, improving the associated habitat and building road-crossing structures to avoid vehicle deaths or injury. It also calls for greater efforts to educate people in Montana and Idaho about safe and effective ways to coexist with grizzlies, such as using better sanitation practices and bear spray.

Finally, the citizen proposal asks the Fish and Wildlife Service to appoint an independent 10- to 12-member scientific committee to monitor the progress of natural migration and identify migration routes that need improvement, among other issues. The members should be experts on several biological topics including landscape, plant and fire ecology, grizzly behavior and genetics, and the implementation of transportation and wildlife plans.

“This alternative is scientifically sound and takes a slow and steady approach to grizzly bear recovery in the Bitterroot Ecosystem. Grizzly bears have already been verified and we do not believe that human-assisted reintroductions to the Bitterroot are necessary at this time,” said Patty Ames, Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force president. “What is needed is protected connectivity areas, sanitation and education, highway passage structures, acceptance and reduced grizzly bear mortality. The bears will do the rest on their own.”

Groups signing on to the citizen alternative include WildEarth Guardians, Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, Friends of the Bitterroot, Friends of the Clearwater, Swan View Coalition, Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, Conservation Congress, Save the Yellowstone Grizzly, Wilderness Watch, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Center for Biological Diversity, Endangered Species Coalition, Western Watersheds Project, Yaak Valley Forest Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Bold Visions Conservation, Inland Empire Task Force, Sierra ForestKeeper, Footloose Montana, Protect Our Woods and three naturalist/biologists.

But they weren’t the only ones asking the Fish and Wildlife Service for a natural migration alternative. On March 14, the Ravalli County Commissioners submitted a letter expressing great concern about grizzly bear restoration. They signaled support for using migration compared to translocation, although they emphasized that they preferred no action.

“Reintroduction versus natural recovery may cause rural communities to suffer disproportionate negative impacts and economic hardship from incursions by grizzly bears into human occupied areas, harming residents who are dependent on personal food production, livestock operations and other rural daily living activities,” the commissioners’ letter said.

They added county residents are worried about livestock depredation, human conflict and reduced recreational opportunities if grizzlies move in. They also want logging projects to continue on the Bitterroot National Forest, but high densities of logging roads and logging activity take their toll on grizzly bears, in addition to elk.

“The citizens of Ravalli County overwhelmingly DO NOT support grizzly bear introduction, this will be cause for negative support of the grizzly bear recovery across the landscape. Reintroduction would likely cause animosity toward grizzly bears like what happened with the grey wolf reintroduction,” the commissioners wrote.

The 60-day scoping period is the start of a court-ordered effort to develop a new environmental impact statement on grizzly bear recovery in the Bitterroot ecosystem, which the Fish and Wildlife Service must complete, along with a decision, by November 2026.

A year ago, after the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in November 2021, Missoula federal judge Donald Molloy ruled that the Service had illegally delayed recovery efforts since 2000, when it published the original EIS of bears in the Bitterroot. The original EIS proposed transplanting 25 bears and the creation of a citizen management committee to educate the public on bear-aware sanitation and safety.

But in 2001, after the state of Idaho sued over the EIS, the Service reversed its stance, saying it actually chose the “no-action” alternative instead of the alternative creating an experimental population. From that point on, the agency took no action, and 20 years later, conservationists finally sued. In the meantime, however, grizzlies have started to show up in the Bitterroot ecosystem on their own, although it’s unknown whether bears have taken up residence.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at