Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) The grizzly bear that wandered far enough into the Missouri River Breaks to warrant a celebration was probably eating chokecherries along the rivers and streams and maybe sniffing its way to hunters’ gut piles.

“That’s a possibility,” said Wesley Sarmento, bear management specialist with Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Bears have been eating leftover hunter kills for thousands of years.”

Grizzly tracks have been documented in the area near the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument the last couple of years as the bear population has expanded, Sarmento said.

However, this fall, American Prairie captured a photograph of a grizzly bear on the organization’s land near Winifred on one of its cameras soon after an employee saw tracks in October, and for the nonprofit working to restore the ecosystem, the image of the carnivore’s presence there marks a milestone.

It’s some of the first evidence of protected grizzly bears there in a century, American Prairie estimated.

“Other than bison roaming, I don’t think there is any better symbol of prairie wilderness than a grizzly bear,” said Daniel Kinka of American Prairie in a newsletter about the sighting.

“This bear repatriated itself. Others like it continue to do so despite a gauntlet of horizon-spanning odds to overcome.

“How many highways and fences did it navigate? How many chickens and trash cans did it wander past on an empty stomach to avoid notice? But here it is, despite everything.”

The photo indicates the bear is likely an adult male, maybe 400-450 pounds, Sarmento said. He said to FWP’s knowledge, it hasn’t caused any conflicts and has stayed out of sight and away from people.

“He’s not likely to cause problems. There’s low competition with other bears, and there’s lots of abundant food,” Sarmento said.

In northeast Montana, American Prairie aims to create a mixed-grass prairie that’s 5,000 square miles, or 3.2 million acres, stitching together privately purchased land with existing public lands and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge as the “1.1 million acre … anchor.” (That’s an area roughly the size of Connecticut, by comparison.)

Beth Saboe, of American Prairie, said this year brought another notable landmark for the organization with a mission to create one of the largest nature reserves in the United States.

She said during the fall aerial bison count, the number of bison topped 900 — at 909 — for the first time.

On its website, American Prairie said it believes a herd of 5,000 is realistic and possible.

“A herd of that size is considered the minimal viable population to fulfill its ecological role on the landscape, to be genetically viable, and to survive what the species encounters on the landscape, including disease, fire and starvation due to drought and extreme winters,” American Prairie says.

American Prairie has been at odds with local ranchers and clashed with Gov. Greg Gianforte and Attorney General Austin Knudsen in its approach to conservation and bison management. Opponents argue its plan is taking land away from agricultural production and local managers.

Saboe said the recently-photographed bear was on American Prairie property known as the PN Ranch, an historic property some 50,000 acres at the mouth of the Judith and Missouri rivers and the furthest west of its land.

Jamie Jonkel, wildlife management specialist with FWP, said bears lived out there for eons before people came, and they’re trying to recolonize that country.

“But it’s tough,” Jonkel said. “It’s not stereotypical, what people think of as bear habitat. People are thinking about timber and huckleberries. It’s a different type of habitat, but it’s a good habitat. You can see for 100 miles, and there’s not much cover.”

But the river systems are full of berries and prairie grasses and forbs and rodents and carcasses, such as bison.

Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have helped bears, but people are putting pressure on them too, with “everyone and their brother” moving here and subdivisions continuing to sprout, Jonkel said.

He said the biggest things that help bears are educating people on good stewardship and creating “safe zones” for bears to pass through without learning bad habits. In other words, keep that garbage contained.

But Jonkel also said he sees a lot of misinformation and hysteria around bears, and he said more “manly men” moving to Montana and running around with guns doesn’t help: “A lot of bears get shot that probably are just sort of standing there looking at a dandelion.”

So although the grizzly sighting on the prairie was expected, it’s also notable because it comes as more people are heading to Montana.

“This is really the last hurrah or chance that we might have to have grizzlies move into new country,” Jonkel said.