State bear experts in the Flathead captured and relocated six grizzlies during four separate incidents in late May, after receiving reports of the bears grazing lawns or killing chickens and livestock. The incidents are yet more proof that northwestern Montana's grizzlies are finding new stomping grounds outside federal recovery areas.
"What we're seeing is a slow, steady kind of bubbling of home ranges," says Jim Williams, wildlife manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) in Kalispell. "It's a recolonization of former habitats, essentially."
Over the past four years biologists have observed a 3-percent annual growth rate among the grizzly bear population in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), which stretches from the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the Rocky Mountains north of the Canadian border. Grizzlies have already been spotted on the plains near Fort Benton and Conrad in past summers, pushing out as the population swells.
However, Williams says rumors of grizzlies occupying certain areas of the Flathead's Salish Mountain range were previously unsubstantiated. Now FWP has reason to believe the bears are reproducing there. Five of the six bears caught in May were female, including two yearling cubs.
"They're there," Williams says, "and that means the boys are there, too."
Williams says that as grizzlies move out of the NCDE and into densely populated human areas, mortality levels will inevitably rise—both from accidents and agency removals. Last weekend, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes reported they'd found a yearling male dead in early May when it was struck by a car on U.S. Highway 93 south of Ronan. FWP officials shot and killed another bear near Conrad on June 8 after it slaughtered sheep on two ranches.
"With all bear conflicts," Williams says, "you're going to be faced with removing bears—females, females with cubs, males, young bears, old bears—because public safety is paramount."
But Williams insists the greater story is one of good news, both for grizzly population recovery and the animals' willingness to coexist with humans.
"Just like lions, just like black bears, grizzly bears are starting to tell us they can do this," Williams says. "So there's a learning curve for us, too."