Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) On paper, the federal government is trying to figure out whether to restore grizzly bears to the Bitterroot Ecosystem, but the bears appear to have their own plans.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is mulling ideas for grizzly bears in the Bitterroot Ecosystem following a public scoping period that closed last month.

The ecosystem is one of six identified recovery zones in the lower 48 states. The agency is expected to publish a final plan for reintroduction by November 2026, although it could recommend no action.

In the meantime, grizzlies have already been spotted in this ecosystem.

A report from January 2024 by a couple of conservation groups estimates female grizzly bears could reach the Bitterroot Ecosystem in as few as 3.7 years given the number of cubs they have every year, distances between recovery zones, denning habitats, and location of routes with berries bears like to eat.

“The initial phase of Bitterroot Ecosystem reoccupation is already underway,” said the report from WildEarth Guardians and the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force.

“Numerous verified observations including a den site have come from within and directly adjacent to the BE. These are presumed to be males, but the possibility that one or more females have reached the BE cannot be ruled out, although that has not yet been verified.

“Sighting grizzly bears in this remote, heavily forested landscape is difficult, even with game cameras, and many people do not report bear sightings.”

The report notes the grizzly bear population in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem is the largest in the lower 48, and it is a “source population” for other areas such as the Bitterroot Ecosystem. It’s possible grizzlies will come from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem too.

Based on routes the report authors selected, female grizzly bears could reach the Bitterroot Ecosystem in as few as 3.7 years and as many as 18.9 years, the report calculated.

Using a different analysis area that includes areas west of Missoula, south of the Clark Fork River, and the Sapphire Mountains, “female grizzly bears could reach that portion of the BE” in 1-4 years, the report said.

Controversy over grizzlies isn’t new to people who live in Ravalli County.

In a recent letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Ravalli County Commissioners said they want the federal agency to understand the way its decisions on grizzlies will affect residents, visitors, commerce and public safety.

They cautioned the federal agency to not be “so imbued with expediting grizzly bear restoration that human interests are placed in subordinate positions.”

“The citizens of Ravalli County overwhelmingly DO NOT support grizzly bear introduction,” the letter said. “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.”

In a phone call Tuesday, Commission Chairperson Dan Huls said people in Ravalli County have been dealing with the question of reintroduction for a long time, and people would resist a plan to force bears into the ecosystem.

“The natural selection by the grizzlies to come back home — because they were here in the past — is something that we all understand, and hopefully we don’t over-rush it,” Huls said. “I think that’s pretty much our position.”

He said bears have their own preferences about where they live, and if they are allowed to choose on their own, he believes humans will be more tolerant of the outcome than if the species are pushed in a particular direction.

“If it’s done naturally, and they’re allowed to repopulate as they choose, I think people will be much more accepting of the fact that they are to be careful” about things like their own safety and trash, for example, Huls said.

The recent report said if grizzlies are to permanently recover in the Northern Rockies, they need to reestablish in the Bitterroot Ecosystem, and it needs to be linked with other recovery areas.

Mike Bader, one of the report’s authors, said its conclusions about when grizzly bears might be considered established there aren’t out of line with estimates from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

He said the agency calculates an established population — defined as one female with successive litters or two breeding females — could be in the Bitterroot as soon as 15 years, roughly in line with an estimated arrival of female grizzlies in the report of within four to 10 years.

“Nothing is going to happen real fast,” Bader said.

However, he said the starting points used in the report to estimate bear movement are all places known to have females with cubs, and the cubs are now dispersing.

As the bears move, Bader said people can help in a variety of ways, such as creating highway passages on U.S. Interstate 90 and U.S. Highway 93, or protecting habitat between recovery areas.

“There’s ways to assist Bitterroot recovery without physically moving the bears,” Bader said.

A couple dozen conservation organizations, including WildEarth Guardians, submitted their own citizen alternative to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and it includes those ideas.

In a statement from the group, Julian Matthews, an enrolled Nez Perce with Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment in Lapwai, Idaho, said the grizzly has been a part of his tribe’s history for thousands of years and should be respected.

“We as a people believe that the Grizzly is a part of our culture and history and support their continuing to be able to live and flourish as they once did,” Matthews said. “We do not believe that we have the right to determine which species can live and which can be removed.”

Patty Ames, president of the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, also called for a slow and steady approach to grizzly bear recovery through the citizens alternative.

“Grizzly bears have already been verified, and we do not believe that human-assisted reintroductions to the Bitterroot are necessary at this time,” Ames said. “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.”

The citizens’ plan differs from the position of the Ravalli County Commissioners, however. It calls for full Endangered Species Act protection, while the commissioners said such a designation would “thwart” other federal efforts to manage the landscape and protect citizens and first responders from wildfires.

Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would review whether to remove Endangered Species Act protections for grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide and Yellowstone ecosystems, and a decision is expected soon.