Grizzly bear managers are meeting in Missoula this week. One thing they’ll be talking about is a bear that made a historic migration across in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem this year.
Montanans have a delicate relationship with grizzly bears. They’re iconic, and at times inconvenient, to what life in Montana is, says Wayne Kasworm, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery coordinator in Libby.
"You love them because they’re out there, but you hate them if they’re in the backyard eating your bird feeder or tipping over your garbage can," Kasworm says.
That sort of situation is what happened to Nancy Hogan in Libby. This October, Hogan walked out into her yard to put some feed into her beehives when she learned a griz had visited her property.
"And I see the hive is completely destroyed and he chewed what he could on the wax, scraped it off," Hogan said. "There is about 70 pounds of honey in a hive for winter, and he ate the whole thing, completely.”
Hogan had an electric fence around the hive, but the solar generator powering it failed. She’s not upset about it and she’s not really worried about it in the future. The electric fence is back up and working.
“They're just animals like the birds," she said. "They're just here, the rabbits, the deer, the grizzly bear. Because I have beehives, that's why they’re here and that's why we're aware, and we should take precautions. It's just life.”
The bear that wrecked one of Hogan’s hives turned out to be a celebrity among the griz recovery experts in the Cabinet-Yaak area of northwest Montana and northern Idaho.
Kasworm says it was the first bear that recovery managers tracked between the Cabinet and Yaak Mountains — mountain ranges that are about 45 miles apart.
“The significance here is gene flow into this population, into the Cabinets in particular.”
The Cabinet-Yaak grizzly recovery zone is split by the Kootenai River.
The Yaak lies to the north. The Cabinets to the south.
Because the bear populations are separated by distance and the river, that makes bear population growth in the area more challenging. Kasworm says the bear that moved between two regions hasn’t mated yet, but he’s a big healthy male who should do well in the breeding season.
“And hopefully be the father of some cubs in the future. And that’s important because we see gene flow into the population, we see bears getting there.”
As Kasworm walks down a path along the Kootenai River he gestures with his hands to each side of the 2,600 square miles recovery area has we walks along the Kootenai River.
“Of that we have about 15- or 1,600 in the Cabinet portion and about a 1,000 or 1,100 in the Yaak.”
Kasworm says about 50 grizzly bears now live in the Cabinet-Yaak. That’s up from about 20 bears two decades ago.
To keep the population growing and gene pool cycling, other recovery areas bring a bear into the Cabinet-Yaak about once a year.
Kasworm says the griz recovery in this area was needed after a variety of impacts during the development and exploration of the West.
“I think probably hunting played a part of it. Certainly people killing bears because they were concerned for protection of property, protection of life, protection of livestock. And we accessed a lot more of the country through building of roads for timber harvest, for mining, which put people in closer proximity to bears and gave people the opportunity to kill bears for whatever reason.”
The grizzly’s listing under the Endangered Species Act prevents them from being hunted now, but human bear conflicts remain one of the big battles in population recovery.
It’s such a problem that full time positions were created in each of the recovery zones to help people learn how to live among bears.
In 2007, Kim Annis became the Cabinet-Yaak bear management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“There was a lack of understanding of how to successfully live in bear country on a long term scale” Annis says.
Chicken coops, beehives, fruit trees and garbage cans can be welcome mats for grizzly bears looking for a easy meal. Annis says the problem isn’t the bear, it's the unfenced chicken coop, or type of garbage can. So she helps homeowners set up their property in a way that is discouraging to bears.
“We use a lot of electric fencing, we can use what we call unwelcome mats with nailboards. There are a lot of different things depending on anyone's specific situation because no two people live the same way, no two people have the same living standards, so we need to be able to tailor it to them in order for it to work for them permanently.”
Creating a place where humans and bears can cohabitate is necessary for the goal of 100 grizzly bears living in the Cabinet-Yaak to be reached, Annis says.
It’s slow and hard work, says Recovery Coordinator Wayne Kasworm, because it’s reversing the historical trend of human-bear interactions.
“And that has happened in the past when people and bears came together - bears lost.”
This week the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee will meet in Missoula for two days to discuss policies for grizzly recovery in all the recovery zones throughout the Northwest.
Montana holds four of the six grizzly population recovery zones established after the grizzly was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975.
During meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, wildlife officials will talk about solutions to human bear conflicts, give updates from each region, and talk about the progress of the de-listing process for the grizzlies in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. We’ll have coverage on the Committee’s meeting throughout the week.
In the Cabinet-Yaak, Wayne Kasworm estimated the grizzly population is growing at around 1.4 percent a year. It’s not great, but it's getting better, he says.
"The recovery plan is not a completely unchanging entity. It is a dynamic in that there are some changes that have been made over time.”
Kasworm says it's still going to be a long time before they reach their goal of 100 bears in the Cabinet-Yaak.