Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) For the grizzly bears of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, it was a good year for finding natural food. That was fortunate because it kept several far-ranging bears away from people.

On Tuesday, grizzly bear biologists from across the Northern Continental Divide region said how relieved they were that 2023 was a relatively quiet year as far as the number of human-bear conflict calls they received. The biologists and other employees of Montana wildlife and land management agencies were attending the winter meeting of the NCDE subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee in Polson.

“It was a quiet year. We had lots of good food, lots of good berries here on the south end, so it was a low conflict year,” said Jamie Jonkel, Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 2 bear biologist. “We still have black bears out, grizzly bears out, so it’s not over yet. Hoping by Christmas it will quiet down.”

Fewer conflict calls meant that biologists were under less pressure and bears were more likely to live, although some still died from other causes such as collisions with cars or trains or by being shot.

In 2023, 20 adult bears died across the NCDE compared to more than 35 in each of the past two years. Two of those 20 bears had wandered outside the primary monitoring area before they died. However, 24 cubs also had their lives cut short. That raised the total to 44.

Four bears died when they were hit on the roads, including one cub killed on Highway 200 east of Lincoln and another male killed on Highway 200 just outside Bonner. Farther north, trains killed two other bears.

Nine bears were known to have been shot around the NCDE, and some deaths are still under investigation. Three bears were shot north of Whitefish and two are under investigation, while farther south, a black bear hunter shot a fourth bear. East of the Continental Divide, three bears were shot, one bear was wounded by a bird hunter and assumed dead while a fifth bear died an unexplained death near some grain spills.

FWP Region 1 biologist Justine Vallieres said two archery hunters shot a sow with three cubs on Aug. 26, but in doing so, one hunter also shot the other.

During public comment, Peter Metcalf, Glacier Two Medicine Alliance executive director, suggested that FWP should require hunters to carry bear spray in bear country, similar to the requirement to wear hunter orange, adding that it would reduce injury to both bears and hunters.

FWP biologist Cecily Costello said the mortalities were still below the threshold established by the NCDE Conservation Strategy, which uses a 6-year running average to even out years that may be unusually devastating or benign. This is the end of the first six years since the conservation strategy was published. So biologists will have to re-evaluate their numbers and project the allowable mortality out another six years. The goal is to have a 90% probability that the NCDE population will remain greater than 800 bears.

Costello said the population is losing some bears due to dispersal outside of the monitoring area, so this winter, biologists are doing a study to estimate how many bears are dispersing. Jonkel said biologists have been getting lots of reports of grizzlies in areas outside of the established grizzly monitoring areas, including the Ninemile Valley, Reservation Divide, Helena, the Boulder Range, the Elkhorn Range, Deer Lodge, the Flint Range, the Big Hole Valley and the Bitterroot Valley.

One of those dispersing bears, Kolb, showed how far bears can disperse but also what trouble they can run into.

Kolb was the male of a young sibling pair that was born in the NCDE but were trapped and collared last summer in the Bitterroot region. Jonkel said Kolb and his sister traveled together for a while after that, but after she dropped her collar outside a den this spring, her movements became unknown. Kolb dropped his collar a couple weeks ago.

“Kolb did some traveling. That boy ended up crossing Interstate 90 seven different times. One time, it wasn’t a true crossing - he was feeding on a deer on the interstate with his sister. But six times, he successfully crossed Interstate 90,” Jonkel said. “He ranged widely through the Blackfoot, the Sapphire Range and the Garnet Range, and even spent a month down the Bitterroot Valley.”

But while Kolb was in the Blackfoot, specifically around Potomac, Jonkel said “he got hooked on garbage.” Kolb was one of three or four bears, including the bear that was hit near Bonner, who were getting into trash cans in the Potomac area. Kolb also got into garbage near Turah, near Clinton and got into attractants at a remote site outside of Drummond.

“There’s lots of subdivision going on in the Garnets, so we have our work cut out for us,” Jonkel said.

While in the Bitterroot, Kolb ran into another grizzly, Suckan, who had been caught on the Flathead Reservation in 2021. Suckan ended up in a black bear trap on the MPG Ranch near Florence this summer, so Jonkel put a collar on him.

“It looks like he’s going to den down in the Sapphire Range,” Jonkel said.

A recent court ruling stopped Montana wolf trapping until Dec. 31 in the Sapphires and other areas where FWP had claimed bears weren’t likely to be found.
Biologists presented the GPS data of two or three other bears that had traveled through areas where a good many people lived or visited, but they were never seen.

One bear, Butters, traveled from Rogers Pass to southeast of Cascade, spiraling through many locations between the spring and fall. Another bear spent 145 days with her two cubs inhabiting 4 square miles along the Flathead River on the outskirts of Kalispell where it seemed unlikely she’d stay undetected.

“She spent a phenomenal amount of time here,” said FWP Region 1 biologist Erik Wenum. “Tens of thousands of people float this section of the Flathead River. No one reported seeing a bear. I don’t think we give bears credit enough for their adaptability to be able to do this and not take advantage of all the opportunities around here.”

While it appears that fewer bears died this year, there were also fewer livestock deaths. Kraig Glazier, U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services specialist, said this year saw a 27% decrease in livestock depredation. The confirmed livestock losses included 13 cows and 54 calves, and a majority of the depredation - 38 cattle - occurred in Glacier County, Glazier said.

The biggest agriculture loss was 35 beehives, although many of those belonged to one person. Glazier said one out-of-state producer had set up several bee yards this year, unaware that he was operating in bear country. The producer has since been educated about electric fencing and other nonlethal tools.

Fewer livestock conflicts meant fewer grizzlies ended up in trouble. This year, the NCDE had seven management removals as opposed to 21 last year.

One of the management removals was in Glacier National Park, but GNP bear biologist John Waller said they first tried to use hazing and other methods to get the bear away from Many Glacier Campground. But it didn’t work. After the bear charged picnickers to get their food, biologists decided the bear couldn’t stay. But in general, Waller agreed with Wenum that most grizzlies are better at living with people than people are at living with bears.

“Bears are very tolerant of all kinds of bad human behavior. It was the first bear the park has removed in 14 years,” Waller said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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