U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey has documented grizzly bears in the southern end of the Bitterroot Valley.

The first summer of the two-year Southwest Grizzly Bear DNA Project is over, and the results documented the presence of two grizzly bears near the headwaters of the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcement.

The USFWS didn’t reveal more about the location of the bears but said people have reported verified sightings of grizzly bears about 20 miles farther to the southeast. The two bears reported were the first to be documented in areas farther west. The Service is working with local partners to notify community members to be aware.

Last November, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator Hilary Cooley told the Interagency Grizzly Bear Bitterroot subcommittee the Southwest Grizzly Bear DNA Project would give people a better idea of where bears were and how quickly they might be migrating into the Bitterroot ecosystem.

Biologists already knew bears were moving south from the Cabinet Mountains and the Bob Marshall Wilderness during the summer. While some bears ended up in the northern end of the Bitterroot Mountains, others have been reported in the Sapphire Mountains and the south side of the Anaconda Range. There is currently no recognized established population of grizzlies in the Bitterroot area.

Cooley, with the help of the U.S. Forest Service and the Defenders of Wildlife, set out hair traps and camera traps in strategic locations in the Bitterroot Range northwest of Missoula and south of I-90, through the Sapphire and Anaconda mountains, and in the Beaverhead and Pioneer mountains around the Big Hole Valley.

Biologists set up temporary barbed-wire corrals deep in the woods and spray smelly scent on sticks in the middle to attract bears to the sites without providing any food reward. As bears climb over or under the barbed wire to investigate the scent, they hopefully leave a little DNA behind, said Russ Talmo, Defenders of Wildlife Northern Rockies and Plains program associate.

“It’s just the smell that draws them in,” Talmo said. “So they come and check it out, hopefully leave hair behind, hopefully get their photo taken, and go about their day.”

Motion-triggered cameras are positioned nearby to capture the bear in the act, and often it’s just black bears checking the sites out. But it was cameras in the East Fork that documented the two grizzly bears.

Technicians are now processing and analyzing genetic data from the hair samples and expect results sometime during the second quarter of 2022. The results may reveal more grizzlies visited the sites than the cameras documented and could show the sex and origin of the two bears sighted. Some advocates have hoped that grizzlies could migrate west from the Yellowstone ecosystem.

“Partnering with the U.S. Forest Service and Defenders of Wildlife allowed this project to be larger in scope than originally planned and more successful than if the Service had worked on our own,” said Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery biologist 

Jennifer Fortin-Noreus. “Collaborative conservation efforts are vital to the successful recovery of grizzly bears. We look forward to continuing this project with our partners during the 2022 field season.”

The study had originally been planned to start in the summer of 2020 but was postponed due to COVID-19.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.