Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The small grizzly bear populations in Idaho and northwestern Montana are about to get their own conservation strategy if biologists can answer a few perplexing questions first.

During Tuesday’s meeting of the Selkirk/Cabinet-Yaak subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Hilary “Eddie” Whitcomb stepped the committee through the various questions raised by a technical working group that's starting work on a conservation strategy for grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk recovery areas.

“This was the first of many meetings that we’ll be having. We’re not a decision-making body, so we’re coming out of it providing some recommendations and discussion topics for the subcommittee to consider,” Whitcomb said.

The first technical working group meeting brought out questions about whether the two populations should be managed separately or together, what geographic area should be considered, should Canada be included, what connectivity aspects should be considered, and what other information or surveys are needed to inform the strategy.

Looking for guidance, the group had read through the two existing conservation strategies - one for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem written in 2016 and the other for the Northern Continental Divide written in 2018 - and found a number of differences, the main one being that the Northern Continental Divide strategy uses zones, each of which require different management.

Whitcomb said the Northern Continental Divide grizzlies are a source population so different zones allow for different protection as bears migrate away from the main recovery area. Yellowstone is an isolated population so should be managed as a whole. So where does that land the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak populations?

“We had some hesitancy on the zone construct or terminology,” Whitcomb said. “The connectivity needs - what are we looking for when we’re talking about these areas outside the recovery zone? Is this a source or receiver from sources? We have to recognize that this is a much smaller population.”

The Northern Continental Divide population is estimated at around 1,000 bears. On Tuesday, USFWS bear biologist Wayne Kasworm said a recent hair-sample study estimated the Selkirk population to be about 69. The Cabinet-Yaak population has been estimated at around 50 to 60 bears.

The two northwestern recovery areas are smaller than either the Northern Continental Divide or Greater Yellowstone ecosystems. Rather than being big areas anchored by national parks and wilderness areas, they contain a lot more private land divided into small ranchettes.

The one positive thing is they both extend to the Canadian border, where there are more grizzlies on the other side. But the technical working group wasn’t sure whether that should be part of the conservation strategy since Canada doesn’t protect its bears. They’d also like to ask British Columbia to help monitor the populations but aren’t sure if the province will agree.

“We talked about we can’t control what Canada does or does not do,” Whitcomb said. “We really need to think about what our management needs are independent of Canada. Does that include augmentation?”

Even in the U.S., the northwestern grizzly populations suffer a greater amount of poaching than in other recovery areas, so they’ve relied on Fish, Wildlife & Parks to help with population augmentation. Few bears make the trek from the Northern Continental Divide on their own. Also, while bears have been moving between the Selkirk and the Cabinet-Yaak, biologists have yet to find any genetic exchange.

“If we manage (the populations) separately, they’ll be smaller and more isolated, more susceptible to stochastic events. If we manage them together, we need to be explicit about connectivity. Habitat, yes, but we talked about human tolerance, those (information and education) efforts between those two ecosystems are really key,” Whitcomb said.

Hilary Cooley, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator, came up with a hybrid approach where the bears will be managed as one “meta-population” with demographic and habitat targets but also have separate subpopulation demographic and habitat targets.

Whitcomb said the strategy would have to rely on probability modeling to estimate populations, similar to the Northern Continental Divide, because bears are harder to track in the forests of the north than they are in the more open Greater Yellowstone.

A lot more research and information is needed while the technical working group is hammering out a conservation strategy, Whitcomb said. A population genetics study is due out within six to eight months that will provide an idea of gene flow and genetic health of the populations. Some updated habitat modeling is needed, and it would be helpful to have a carrying capacity analysis of the recovery areas, Whitcomb said.

The group is reaching out to University of Montana researcher Sarah Sells to ask if she could model grizzly bear movement between the two small recovery areas and perhaps across the border into Canada. Kasworm said it would be good to analyze connectivity between the Selkirk/Cabinet-Yaak, the Northern Continental Divide and the Bitterroot ecosystems. Finally, better maps of motorized access in the area are needed related to grizzly dispersal outside recovery zones.

In the meantime, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is rewriting its environmental impact statement on grizzlies in the Bitterroot Ecosystem, due in October 2026, which might help answer part of the geographic question.

Cooley said to expect the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to publish a notice of intent in December for scoping on the Bitterroot study.

Neil Anderson, FWP Region 1 wildlife program manager, asked, related to connectivity, would the Cabinet-Yaak and Northern Continental Divide be treated like a meta-population.

“We see bears going west from the NCDE moving into those areas,” Anderson said. “But we have a statewide (grizzly bear) management plan that’s still in the works, and some of the questions you bring up are good ones, but we have to balance that with what our plan might look like once it comes out.”

The next technical working group meeting is planned for December.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at