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Recovery of the Great Bear: History, politics and recovery

Recovery of the Great Bear: History, politics and recovery

This past summer and fall (2019), it appears there were at least three confirmed grizzlies in the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests. That exciting news was confirmed by a radio collar on a bear, and trail cameras, the photos from which quite conclusively revealed grizzly bears. However, this news is not all positive. Most of the cameras were set up for bait stations to hunt black bears in Idaho. The grizzlies were attracted to the human food in the bait stations. Bear baiting in Idaho and Wyoming is the subject of a lawsuit  because of the threat it poses to grizzlies, and because it habituates bears to human food. This article discusses the history of grizzlies and their recovery in what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) terms the Bitterroot Ecosystem (which includes the Clearwater Basin); the three (maybe more) grizzlies that were found in the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests this summer and fall; and recent activities by Friends of the Clearwater (FOC) and others, (Tribal organizations, other conservationists, scientists, and agencies) to promote grizzly recovery across the Bitterroot Ecosystem and US northern Rockies.

I-Some History

Part 1-A The Grizzlies

Prior to the 2000s, the last grizzly confirmed in the Clearwater, Salmon, Bitterroot (Montana), and other adjacent drainages was in 1956 or 1946, depending on the source. Until the relatively recent advent of trail cameras and DNA analysis from hair snagging, “confirmed” usually meant killed, though agency ideology seems to play a major role in whether good evidence is considered definitive or not. The late Bud Moore, a famous ranger in the Lochsa District in the mid-1900s, was credited in written accounts with seeing the last grizzly track in 1946 in the upper Lochsa.  Some written accounts state a Ranger Puckett or Bud Moore killed the last grizzly in 1956 in the Lochsa, a charge Bud Moore claimed was inaccurate.

Dr. David Mattson has proposed that even though central and north-central Idaho and the eastern fringe of the Bitterroot Range in Montana, have significant wild country, the fact that grizzlies ate salmon was perhaps the major factor in their demise. In essence, it was easy to locate the bears along streams and shoot them. The roadless lands in the Big Wild (also known as the Greater Salmon-Selway or Greater Salmon-Clearwater Ecosystems) are larger in terms of acreage than what is found in Greater Yellowstone or Northern Continental Divide Ecosystems, which boast by far the most grizzlies in the lower 48 states. Other factors in the great bear’s demise in the Big Wild includes the lack of a large protected area similar to Yellowstone or Glacier National Parks.  Sheepherders were also hostile to grizzlies as many thousands of sheep grazed over much of the Clearwater and portions of the Salmon River drainages in the first half of the 1900s.

Several reports of grizzlies were documented in the 1970s and 80s from the Clearwater or Salmon drainages, although none of them were considered confirmed. The Clearwater Story: A History of the Clearwater National Forest (an official Forest Service publication) by Ralph Space claims a photo of a grizzly was taken in the upper North Fork Clearwater in 1977. Studies by W. Melquist and C. Groves of the Idaho Fish and Game Department (IDFG) in the 1980s turned up good evidence, including a track seen by one of them in the North Fork Clearwater. Camera tracking in 1990 and 1991 reportedly turned up no grizzlies. It is unlikely those cameras were as technologically advanced as the readily available and more modern trail cameras. Only 559 photos of wildlife were taken in those studies and of that number, 265 were considered bear photos. FWS’s 2000 Environmental Impact Statement on grizzly recovery in the Bitterroot does not state whether any of those 265 bear photos showed what might be a grizzly.

In spite of skepticism from the FWS and other agencies, there were fairly reliable reports of grizzlies in the Clearwater Basin throughout the last few decades of the 1900s and in the early 2000s. For example, Gene Eastman, a retired IDFG conservation officer for the North Fork stated in a letter he believed grizzlies were never completely extirpated in the Clearwater country, essentially the land north of the Salmon River in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and points north in the Clearwater.

There are also persistent rumors of grizzlies killed illegally in the Clearwater Country. In the early 2000s, a bear was known to be in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana, possibly headed for the Bitterroot Range, according to information from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.  In the early 2000s, documentation efforts were undertaken by Friends of the Bitterroot, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Great Bear Foundation, Friends of the Bitterroot, and Friends of the Clearwater, to document bears in the region in the early 2000s.

The skepticism from agency heads seemed to change a bit in 2007, when a grizzly was illegally killed over bait in Kelly Creek, a wild North Fork Clearwater tributary.  That bear was related to those in the Selkirk, which was somewhat of a surprise, as most expected such a bear to come from the continental divide population north and east of Missoula, Montana.

Friends of the Clearwater filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests to try and learn if there were any sightings since 2007. We found some intriguing, though not entirely conclusive, photos from the Mallard-Larkins, as well as a report from an expert agency biologist along the South Fork Clearwater.

Last year, a grizzly was found in the Bitterroot Valley, not far from the eastern flank of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, on a golf course that abuts a wildlife refuge along the Bitterroot River. This bear was trapped and moved far to the north even though he was just eating earthworms and posed no threat to people. Unfortunately, he was killed this year because he was attracted to chicken coops and other unsecured food sources in northwest Montana.

The upshot is grizzlies are moving into the Wild Clearwater. As David Mattson has pointed out, their range expansion may not necessarily be due to an increase in numbers, but rather bears dealing with the vagaries of food supply in the northern Rockies in light of climate change and other human factors. His studies also show there is excellent habitat in the Clearwater Basin and surrounding areas, perhaps some of the best. According to a 2001 study by World Wildlife Fund Canada, the biggest concentration of good grizzly habitat in the Rockies in the U.S. and southern Canada is centered on the Clearwater Basin.

Part I-B Agency Grizzly Bear Recovery Efforts

Grizzly bears were listed as threatened in the U.S. outside of Alaska in the 1970s. Recovery Areas were identified near Yellowstone, the Northern Continental Divide, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, the Cabinet Mountains and the Yaak River in Northwest Montana (including some land in the far northeast Idaho Panhandle), the Selkirk Mountains in Idaho (also including the northeast part of Washington), and the North Cascades. The recovery area now termed the Bitterroot Ecosystem, encompassed the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and included the breaks of the Salmon River north of the Main Salmon (Nez Perce and Bitterroot National Forests), Meadow Creek, the Lochsa, the upper North Fork Clearwater, and land in Montana east of the Bitterroot Crest on the Lolo and Bitterroot National Forests.

However, the seriously flawed Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision (2001) for a grizzly bear reintroduction program in the Bitterroot readjusted the core recovery area to only include the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church-River of No Return Wildernesses. While this expanded the original recovery area south of the main stem Salmon River, it excluded some of the best grizzly habitat in the North Fork Clearwater and upper Lochsa outside of the Selway- Bitterroot Wilderness. It even excluded habitat in the Gospel Hump and Sawtooth Wildernesses. This was the result of a deal cut by two conservation groups (the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife), and the timber industry in Idaho. Further, any reintroduced bears would be considered experimental/non-essential and would be subject to a citizens committee.

FOC supported an alternative effort led by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which was based upon science, created protective measures in the form of biological corridors to encourage natural recovery, and included a recovery area of all the immense wildlands in central and north central Idaho and contiguous wildlands in western Montana.  At the hearings in Lewiston, it was this alternative that received the most citizen support. In any case, the final decision by the federal government was a slightly modified version of the deal mentioned above, that was agreed to by the timber industry and a couple of wildlife groups. Even that proved too much for Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne, who sued the FWS. The Bush Administration then reached an out of court deal with Idaho that essentially put any recovery in the Bitterroot and Clearwater in limbo. Kempthorne later became Bush’s Secretary of the Interior.

II-The 2019 Bears

The first of the three bears was a young male that was captured and collared for augmentation of the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem. This bear was from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. He was first spotted in the North Fork Clearwater and spent much of the summer in and around the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, in both Idaho and Montana. He was also photographed at various locations in the North Fork Clearwater and upper Lochsa this spring and fall, usually from cameras placed where hunters left bait for bears. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provided us with photos. At last report, he had moved north of Lolo Pass onto the Montana side of the Great Burn/Kelly Creek/Hoodoo Recommended Wilderness. It is not yet known whether he will den there or make the long trek north back to where he was released in the Cabinet Mountains.

We found out about the second bear at a meeting with the FWS in Missoula. The citizens at the meeting – FOC, Friends of the Wild Swan, Western Watersheds Project, Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizens Task Force, Yaak Valley Forest Council, Friends of the Bitterroot, and other citizens – were surprised to learn that a grizzly had been spotted near White Bird, ID presumably on the Nez Perce National Forest. The experts who viewed the picture agreed that it was a grizzly. Again, it was photographed near a black bear baiting area and the FWS kindly supplied us with the photos. A DNA sample was taken, but the analysis won’t be available until next year as the testing lab has many orders. This is exciting news as the location of this bear is near the Greater Hells Canyon Ecosystem and on the western edge of the Big Wild Ecosystem.

The third bear (maybe more?) came from trail cameras in the upper Lochsa, again mainly associated with baiting sites for black bears. These photos show that there is a bear without the ear tags or collar that the young male who traveled from the Cabinet’s had. Due to the fact that some of the photos are of a night-vision type, it is hard to tell if there is more than one bear without a radio collar and/or ear tags. The FWS provided us with these photos, too.

Again, all of this points to the fact that grizzlies are on the move. They are coming into the Clearwater from the north and possibly the east. In the case of the bear in the White Bird region, nobody yet knows where the bear traveled from. White Bird Creek flows west to the lower Salmon from the divide between the Salmon and South Fork Clearwater drainages. One can hope the grizzly bears without collars will survive and won’t be illegally killed.

III-Recent Actions

The recent legal victory by Tribes and conservation groups that prevented delisting of grizzlies in the Yellowstone region underscored the importance of biological connectivity of grizzly populations. The Clearwater region, being the northern half of the Big Wild, plays a key role as a potential source population for grizzlies and as a connecting habitat bridge between bears in the Yellowstone area and those bears to the north and east of the Clearwater.

FOC had the privilege of facilitating a 2018 meeting in Missoula of concerned citizens about grizzly conservation. We have also authored three letters to various agencies and entities, discussing recovery of grizzlies and problems with bear baiting, which several organizations joined with us. Both the existing Clearwater and Nez Perce National Forest forest plans have grizzly recovery as a goal. However, the Forest Service has been reluctant to embrace grizzly recovery and has, in fact, been hostile to any measures to protect grizzlies in the upcoming forest plan revision.

This summer FOC completed a food safety inventory of about 40 campgrounds and a few others sites in the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests. Unfortunately, what we found is that most of the bear proof dumpsters at campgrounds are no longer working. The good efforts begun in the early 2000s have fallen into disrepair. Educational materials about grizzly bears are more prevalent, though not available at all sites. We provided this study to the FWS. The agency expressed interest in the possibility of funding future efforts by other conservation groups, in conjunction with officials from the Bitterroot and Lolo National Forests, to produce similar reports. Our inventory report can be found at friendsoftheclearwater.org/our-reports/.

Stay tuned, there is much work that needs to get done!

by Gary Macfarlane

Top Photo Courtesy of USFWS.

Learn about the lack of analysis for grizzly recovery in the forest plan revision on the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests.

View our main grizzly bear recovery page.