by Karl Puckett, Tribune Staff Writer
When members of the Ayers family snapped photographs of a grizzly bear spotted on their ranch north of Fort Benton in the early summer, they were documenting the return of the species to its former home on the range.
“I don’t think you would have any accounts of the bears after 1880, when the buffalo were all gone,” said Jack Lepley of the River and Plains Society, an organization that operates history museums in Fort Benton.
The return of ursus arctos horribilis, Montana’s official state animal, to a portion of its historic plains habitat isn’t receiving a king’s welcome in some quarters in Montana.
“They are the predator and enemy of the livestock man,” said Jim O’Hara, a commissioner in Chouteau County, where the bear made the historic appearance.
But others see the homecoming as progress.
“There’s plenty of room in the state of Montana for people and bears,” said Camille Wills, a resident of Great Falls, which was a hotbed for bison-feeding grizzlies long before it evolved into the Electric City.
In 1975, when the grizzly was listed as a threatened species, north central Montana’s grizzly population had dwindled to an estimated 200 to 300 bears dwelling mostly in remote areas in the mountains and public forestland.
Today, the population in the 9,600-square-mile Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem stands at 765 or so, and bear managers say the grizzly that Ayers photographed was just one of several that blazed new frontiers onto the prairie east of the Rocky Mountains in 2009.
After Ayers saw the grizzly outside of Fort Benton, it continued east to Loma before being relocated for killing sheep.
The Loma grizzly’s prairie journey exemplifies the progress bears have made in the three decades they’ve been protected, said Chris Servheen, the recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Fewer bears are dying; more bears are living,” Servheen said. “As they grow up, they start to pioneer more habitat.”
But the expansion of home ranges into historic habitat, which is now teeming with livestock instead of bison, also presents challenges, said Mike Madel, a grizzly bear management specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
To limit conflicts on lands closer to the Rocky Mountains, state bear managers have worked with residents on measures to protect attractants such as sheep and beehives from bears, but that’s yet to happen in areas farther east, Madel said.
“There’s no doubt the probability of grizzly bear conflicts increases as bears extend further and further out,” Madel said.
The success of grizzlies living on the plains will depend in part on people’s willingness to live with them, he said.
Moving out onto the prairie
Sightings of Rocky Mountain Front bears have occurred this summer and fall near Simms on the Sun River, east of Shelby on the Marias, and Fort Benton and Loma on the Teton. Those are locations where they have never been seen before by this generation, Madel said.
The Loma bear came within a mile and a half of the Missouri River. If bears reach the Missouri, they could be off to the races.
“In a few more years, there may be bears on the Missouri Breaks,” Servheen said.
Madel says it’s probably only a matter of time before a Front grizzly follows the Sun River to the outskirts of Great Falls.
“We’re seeing this expansion happening at a faster rate than we expected it to happen,” he said.
Two weeks ago, bird hunters spied a grizzly south of Tiber Dam north of Great Falls and well east of Interstate 15. The bear stood up on its hind legs – in a crop field – then ran off.
Chouteau County, which the Loma bear checked out in July, has the largest number of acres of wheat and barley under cultivation in the United States and numerous cattle operations, too.
O’Hara says residents were “awestruck” by the grizzly. “I don’t remember anybody ever talking about a grizzly in this part of the country,” he said.
But most residents don’t want to see grizzlies wandering through on a regular basis, he said, which would threaten cattle, sheep and pets.
“You could categorize the grizzly bear as a predator with the coyote and the wolf,” O’Hara said.
Truth be told, Servheen said, most bears mind their own business, and he expects only an occasional bear to end up in places such as Loma. Grizzlies occupy 2 percent of their historic range on the Great Plains, he said, and Montana is the only state with the combination of habitat, bears and attitudes to allow it to reoccupy a portion of its native habitat.
“Just because they are seen doesn’t make them a problem,” Servheen said.
Jack Kirby, 62, who ranches on the Sun River on the outskirts of Simms, had never seen a grizzly bear on his ranch before Oct. 9. On that day he was surprised to find three feasting on a cow carcass. They ran off when he pulled up on his three-wheeler.
Until the bears return to the mountains to hibernate, Kirby has moved his cattle to a pasture closer to his house. Bear managers determined that the bears fed on a cow that was already dead, but with the bear population strong, it’s time to institute a hunting season, Kirby said.
“There’s a place for bears,” he said. “I don’t think it’s here.”
At the nearby Lowry Bridge River Access and Recreation Area, which is also on the Sun River, a sign warns visitors that grizzlies were spotted in the area Aug. 14.
“This bear recovery has been a huge, huge success and the sooner we take ’em off the endangered species list, the better off we’re going to be,” said Bert Guthrie, a retired rancher north of Choteau who now leases his land to Nels DeBruycker.
Guthrie first had a grizzly show up on his land in 1985. When he heard grizzlies had moved into the Simms area, which is much farther east, he called Kirby and told him, “Welcome to the club.”
Last week, Guthrie also invited Department of Natural Resources and Conservation officials to visit property that he leases from DNRC, giving them a piece of his mind about grizzlies.
Last month, a hunter bumped into a bear in the thick brush on the leased property and Guthrie said he wants permission to clear out the thorny buffalo berry which would make the land less attractive to grizzlies and more productive for grazing.
Sounding a theme presented by President George W. Bush in his first speech following the 2001 terrorist attacks, Guthrie told the DNRC officials they were either on his side or the grizzly’s, which he says has been allowed to impinge on private enterprise.
“I think your priorities are mixed up,” he said.
Guthrie is welcome to propose changes in how the leased property is used, which will be considered, DNRC officials said.
Removal of federal protections for the grizzly is a way off because recovery isn’t just related to numbers, Servheen said. A post-delisting plan spelling out the regulatory framework under which bears will be managed also needs to be developed, he said.
Despite this year’s forays by bears into new habitat, bear managers say prairie populations will never be as dense as they were historically because the bison are gone and farms and ranches and roads now dominate the landscape.
“There are going to be some places bears just can’t establish home ranges, like big open croplands,” Madel said.
Bear populations dwindle
When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark paddled through the area more than 200 years ago, grizzlies numbered 50,000 between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Plains, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In their journals, Lewis and Clark wrote that so many bears lived around what is today Great Falls that the explorers would not let the men go out alone. A sculpture of a grizzly at West Bank Park marks the approximate location where a grizzly chased Lewis into the Missouri River after he had shot a buffalo for dinner.
In Lewis and Clark’s day, floating bison carcasses were strewn in the Missouri because animals would get pushed to their deaths when giant herds watered near the “great falls” of the river.
That provided a “major feast for the bears,” said Jeff LaRock, supervisory interpreter at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls.
The grizzly’s decline on the prairie corresponded with the decline of the bison, followed by settlement when bears were shot or poisoned, Servheen says.
When he painted a picture of bears feeding on a bison carcass on the shores of the Missouri River, artist Karl Bodmer documented the historic plains grizzly before it disappeared. The painting was based on what Bodmer saw in 1833 near Fort Benton while he was exploring the West with German naturalist Prince Maximilian.
More than a century later, Ayers, with his digital pictures, documented the return of the grizzly to the Fort Benton area.
In July, the 230-pound male, a 1.5-year-old, followed the Teton River from the Rockies east. By river miles, it traveled 177 miles. It was the farthest east a grizzly had ever been observed in modern times, Madel said.
Because it killed sheep, the bear was relocated to the west side of the Continental Divide, but it came back, showing up east of Browning in open grassland before bear managers lost track of it. It’s possible that the bear the hunters saw near Tiber Dam a few weeks ago is Loma bear, Madel said.
“It could be up in the Sweet Grass Hills,” said Madel.
The Sweet Grass Hills, three buttes and scattered grassy hills, are located on the plains north of Highway 2, near the Canadian border.
Deadly year for grizzlies, too
A record number of grizzly bears have been killed along the Rocky Mountain Front in 2009, said Mike Madel, a grizzly bear management specialist with Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks.
A total of 10 bears have been killed, with five deaths related to self-defense shootings of two females that had cubs, Madel said.