CSKT wins grant to study grizzly bear use of road crossing structures

One of the bigger causes of grizzly bear deaths in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem is vehicle collisions. So the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes got a grant to find the best way to reduce that on the Flathead Reservation.

Last week, CSKT wildlife biologist Whisper Camel-Means was happy to learn the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had accepted her application for a Tribal Wildlife Grant and approved her request for more than $83,000. That money will help tribal biologists analyze the mountain of data they’ve gathered regarding animal movements across U.S. Highway 93, especially regarding grizzly bears.

“We’ve got all this data, and we know where they’re crossing,” Camel-Means said. “We got the grant to synthesize the locations where they’re crossing Highway 93 and will try to – with a grizzly bear focus – think about what we could do with the remaining section of highway.”

A decade ago, the CSKT worked with the Montana Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to build the most wildlife-friendly highway in the nation. While MDT widened most of Highway 93 between Evaro and Polson to accommodate increasing traffic, it also installed 41 animal underpasses and the iconic Animals’ Bridge overpass.

However, the project is not finished and a 10-mile stretch north of St. Ignatius through the Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area remains. Sadly, many grizzly bears have died along that stretch while the state of Montana tries to find funding to finish its work.

In 2018, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee reported a record 17 bears had died on highways, although some of those died on U.S. Highway 2 south of Glacier National Park. But Camel-Means knows Highway 93 is a problem as more bears try to cross from the Mission Mountains to the grain fields on the west side of the valley.

The CSKT has several game cameras set up at the animal crossings and tracks what species use them. Unfortunately, grizzly bears don’t seem as motivated as deer to use the crossings. Between 2010 and 2015, only 30 of the 95,000 animals seen using the crossings were grizzly bears. Similar results are reported in other places, such as Banff National Park in Canada. Camel-Means hopes the grant will help solve that problem.

“We have structures that grizzly bears do use, but they don’t use them as often as we’d like and they’re still getting hit on the highway. So we want to look at why that is,” Camel-Means said.

The Flathead Reservation was one of the first regions to use animal crossings so extensively, so little was known about how well they would work. Now, groups from around the nation and the world travel to the reservation to learn from the CSKT work.

Camel-Means said the highway project delay has one silver lining: It’s allowed time for biologists to learn more about what crossings are more effective for different species. And maybe the plans developed two decades ago need some updating.

“That was the spirit of the whole project – that we would learn as we went,” Camel-Means said. “We have the environmental assessment, it’s all been done years ago. But we’ve learned a lot since that was written.”

But the delay has been longer than anticipated. The highway work started in 2005, thanks to a $125 million bond that former Gov. Judy Martz pushed through the 2003 Legislature. The Animals’ Bridge was completed in 2010, and little has happened since due to a lack of money.

One partial solution could be allowing organizations to raise money to pay for the crossing structures. That’s how the state of Washington was able to build a large overpass over I-90 near Snoqualmie Pass. The only problem there is the Montana Department of Transportation doesn’t have a procedure for accepting private money.

“We’re working on that. But it also comes down to transportation dollars from the federal government being earmarked for wildlife crossing structures, which they’re starting to do,” Camel-Means said. “They’re not cheap.”

The CSKT are also concerned about whether Greg Gianforte will allow Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to continue collaborating with the tribes on grizzly bear management after he takes office.

While they’re waiting to see what the future holds, CSKT biologists will be busy putting the grant money to work, starting in 2021, Camel-Means said.

The Fort Belknap Fish and Wildlife Department also received a Tribal Wildlife Grant to monitor swift foxes and endangered black-footed ferrets on the Fort Belknap Reservation.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lunquist@missoulacurrent.com.