The mysterious disappearance of Grizzly 726

The last sign of life from Grizzly Bear 726 came in the form of a radio signal from a recycled tracking collar. The bear was wandering somewhere high in the Centennial Mountains Aug. 31, 2012, west of Yellowstone National Park and on the fringe of the grizzly bear recovery zone. It’s remote, rugged country, where the southwestern Montana landscape rises abruptly toward the Continental Divide before tapering off into the rolling foothills of eastern Idaho. Ranchers graze sheep at high elevations, and there’s an experimental sheep research station run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Archery hunters comb the woods in early fall for elk or deer. And the occasional grizzly, like 726, pushes beyond the boundaries of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem into a new and complicated landscape.

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726 had been a healthy bear when grizzly biologist Craig Whitman and others with the U.S. Geological Survey tagged him near Sawtell Peak two weeks before. He was between three and four years old, a hair over 392 pounds, with good musculature and roughly 25 percent body fat. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team found him in a culvert trap, which they’d baited with a hunk of elk chest. They dosed him with Telazol and fitted him with a collar previously deployed on Grizzly Bear 338 in 2010. 726 got tattoos of the number 1032 on both upper lips to further aid in identification. Biologists took blood, fur and DNA swabs before releasing him. Nine hours after his first dose of tranquilizer, 726 bounded up a hill into the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.

Eighteen days after 726’s last signal, Whitman fished the abandoned collar out of a small creek on the south side of Sheep Mountain. The mercury switch inside had stopped moving on Sept. 12, triggering the one transmission biologists dread when dealing with a federally protected species: a mortality signal. Whitman found the collar stuffed beneath a log not far from a well-established hunter camp. He and others spent days combing the area for any sign of 726—blood, fur, tracks. They found nothing.

Today 726 is a question mark, an open case on the books for state and federal wildlife agencies. Resident agent Terry Thibeault, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of Billings, is quick to point out that there’s little evidence of foul play. “We don’t even have a dead bear,” he says. “What we have is a collar.” There were moments early on when leads appeared promising. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks conservation officer Jim Smolczynski tracked down two hunters seen at a nearby trailhead around the same time 726 was in the area. But the trail quickly went cold. It’s a mystery for some, as if 726 simply vanished.

“It’s a 400-pound bear,” Smolczynski says. “It’s not that easy to move. You’re going to have to cut it up … It’s in a wilderness area, and there were no truck tracks where someone drove in. So you’re scratching your head going, ‘Who could move a 400-pound bear and not have a drop of blood?’”

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  • John Meyer
  • The Centennial Mountains west of Yellowstone are home to grizzlies, wolves, hunters, recreationalists–and an experimental federal sheep station.

Officials are holding out hope that 726 merely lost his collar and will turn up when biologists begin trapping and tagging bears again this year. However, some in Montana strongly believe that 726’s fate was more dire and far-reaching than his disappearing act might suggest. Months after the collar was recovered, Tim Bozorth, a retired Bureau of Land Management director out of Dillon, penned a scathing letter to the editor in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “It’s pretty obvious that the federal government’s sheep grazing in the Centennial Mountain along the Montana-Idaho border killed Grizzly Bear No. 726,” Bozorth wrote in March. “In this area of Montana and Idaho there is no hunting season in late August and September, so hunters are not to blame. Only the U.S. government sheep herder was known to be in the area when the bear disappeared; hmm.”

Bozorth isn’t alone in his suspicions. Five environmental nonprofits, including the Bozeman-based Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, filed suit this month against the Agricultural Research Service and its U.S. Sheep Experiment Station, or USSES, among others. The groups allege that several grizzlies have been shot and killed on USSES property since the late 1980s. And while 726 is not specifically mentioned in the suit, his disappearance has sparked renewed criticism of a nearly 100-year-old operation that prefers to draw as little attention to itself as possible.

“I think there’s been a lot of suspicion for a long time,” says Cottonwood attorney Andrew Gorder, “that this place operates as a black hole for grizzly bears.”

Stuck in the middle

Montana’s Centennial Valley runs parallel to a desolate 54-mile stretch of rough gravel road between Interstate 15 and Idaho Highway 87. The Centennials themselves dominate the entire southern horizon, while the Gravelly Range of the Beaverhead National Forest rises slowly away to the north. Sagging homesteads dot the valley floor, as do cluttered ranch yards and herds of cattle. The eastern half of the valley is occupied by Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and its manager, Bill West, recognizes just how wild and unforgiving this side of the state line can be.

“The Centennials shade the valley halfway out, so the grass doesn’t grow very well,” West says. “Anybody who homesteaded in this valley nearly starved to death.”

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  • Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team
  • Grizzly 726 was trapped and collared in August 2012. Roughly three weeks later, his collar was recovered with no sign of the bear.

Across the border in Idaho, the story goes a bit differently. Ranchers have it easier in the gentler, sloping terrain, particularly those grazing sheep. The Forest Service and the BLM leased out allotments to private herds for decades. Until the mid-1930s, the Centennials were in the middle of a giant expanse between Burley, Idaho, and Melrose, Mont., where Frank Hagenbarth’s Wood Livestock Company ran sheep and cattle. The company went “flat-ass broke” in 1935, says Jim Hagenbarth, Frank’s grandson and himself an old-timer among local ranchers.

This grazing range occupies a large swath of land just outside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly recovery zone. The region’s bear population has rebounded dramatically over the years, with current population estimates around 700. The ecosystem is isolated from other existing grizzly habitats, and as with wolves, the bears are expanding their territory. West has noted an increase in the frequency of griz sightings over the past 10 years. Subadult males and sows with cubs have popped up on trail cams, “younger bears testing the landscape,” as West puts it. In response, federal agencies have voluntarily withdrawn grazing allotments at higher elevations—except the USSES, which continues to run sheep in the summer on an allotment at the head of Odell Creek just above the Red Rock Lakes refuge.

“Essentially, the Sheep Station just proposes to continue doing what it has always done, regardless of the cost to wildlife and changes in the importance of the area to wildlife,” said Sterling Miller, a senior wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation, during a radio commentary on KUFM in September 2011. “In these days, when the federal government is looking for ways to cut money and unnecessary programs, this stubbornness undercuts public support for the Sheep Station.”

The sheep station’s history dates back to the 1910s and early ’20s, when the presidential administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding set aside nearly 28,000 acres in the area for use in sheep grazing and breeding research. The station’s objective to this day remains “increasing production efficiency for sheep and … simultaneously improve the sustainability of rangeland ecosystems.” But the intervening decades have seen massive conservation efforts to recover Yellowstone National Park’s grizzly population, and the Centennials are now recognized by biologists as a potential corridor for genetic exchange, even repopulation of the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem that remains devoid of resident griz. The USSES is in the center of that potential corridor, grazing a domesticated species that are easy pickings for the bears.

“What this place adds to the grizzly world is genetic connection potential,” West says. “And with that, I believe most people who have livestock understand genetics enough to know that if the government’s identified that as an improvement to bear management, then this is an important part of the bear puzzle. That means a change to their lifestyle some, but hopefully not one that’s a deal killer or a business killer.”

Federal officials have repeatedly acknowledged the potential for griz conflicts throughout the Centennials in recent years—specifically on USSES property. In a biological opinion dated November 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that telemetry data gathered by bear biologists “have documented 5 different collared grizzly bears” on USSES allotments since 2001. The document clearly outlines the potential problems of habitat displacement and food habituation for grizzlies resulting from grazing, and the subsequent necessity to remove problem bears from the population. Similar concerns extend to the recreating public in the Centennials, a popular location for both backcountry hikers and hunters. “Grizzly bears may be harmed or killed in defense of human life by recreationalists,” the opinion states. “Big game hunters may mistakenly identify grizzly bears as black bears and kill them. In other cases, individuals may maliciously kill grizzly bears.”

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  • Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team

The FWS concluded in 2011 that “although we anticipate take of grizzly bears from habituation to humans and mortality due to human/bear conflicts,” continued grazing by the USSES in the Centennials would not reduce grizzly bear survival or recovery. Still, the agency’s final recommendation was that the sheep station “seek replacement lands outside of known grizzly bear use areas.” The BLM released a similar recommendation that fall, stating, “it is our belief that the goals and objectives of the USSES can be achieved in an area that doesn’t pose a significant threat to grizzly bears.”

The USSES did voluntarily retire its Tom Creek allotment in the eastern Centennials in 2010 to avoid grazing on an adjacent Forest Service allotment contained in the primary conservation area for Yellowstone grizzlies. But despite the federal recommendations issued in recent years, a herd of sheep was passing through the Odell Creek allotment—under the watchful eye of a sheep herder and several guard dogs—at roughly the same time 726 was making his way west from Sawtell Peak.

The black hole

Shortly after recovering 726’s collar, Craig Whitman and Jim Smolczynski drove to Lima to interview two Wisconsin hunters who’d been spotted in the area around the time the bear vanished. Whitman later wrote up his entire account of the search for 726, a “collar retrieval” report obtained by the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and dispersed to the public. In his account, Whitman focuses on the behavior that made the two hunters, at least initially, prime suspects in 726’s disappearance.

“During our first encounter with the hunters on the trail, one became visibly nervous when we mentioned we were walking in on a bear collar on mortality,” Whitman wrote. “This same hunter was also visibly nervous, pale and sweaty during the interview. The first thing one of the hunters brought up when the radio collar in the creek at their camp was discussed was that since the collar was in the water there would be no fingerprints on it.”

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  • Alex Sakariassen
  • Bill West, manager of the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, believes the Centennials are an “important part of the bear puzzle.”

Whitman’s report has become a detailed centerpiece in the story of 726’s disappearance. He documents a number of seemingly key details—the collar appeared to have been cut, a serrated knife was recovered near the location of the collar, a third set of boot prints in the adjacent campsite could not be accounted for. But Smolczynski cautions that, while Whitman was well meaning, the report was not written by an enforcement officer. It’s unfortunate that it got out, Smolczynski adds. Given the ongoing nature of the case, having such a wealth of investigative evidence go public can be devastating.

“You don’t want to compromise your case,” Smolczynski says. “You don’t want to send out too much information, because if something did happen … if somebody knows something, and now they know that we’re struggling with some information, they’re like, ‘Hey, cool.’”

Suspicion about the Wisconsin hunters waned quickly. Smolczynski says the two were extremely cooperative with the investigation, even going so far as to let officials search their vehicles and gear. Smolczynski calls that “a pretty good sign. If they’re hiding something, if they’d had bloody knives or kept a part…but they had no problem with us going through all their stuff.”

Whitman’s report eventually concludes that the collar was dumped in the creek days before the Wisconsin hunters even pitched camp and instead turns to another curious piece of evidence. On Sept. 25, Whitman returned to the Odell Creek area with Bonnie Whitman, a law enforcement ranger with the National Park Service. The two were accompanied by Bonnie’s evidence dog, a German shepherd named Gator. They searched the area where 726 had last given off a live signal. The area, well within the sheep station’s Odell Creek allotment, showed signs of recent sheep grazing. Whitman wrote that on a ridge overlooking the area, “we found where the sheep herder had been stationed near the flock. At the top of the hill Bonnie and Gator located one new spent rifle cartridge on top of the dead grass.” Whitman turned the cartridge over to Smolczynski as evidence.

“He found a shell casing, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything at the time,” Smolczynski says. “That’s a hunting area and it was kind of an older shell casing. But they found it in an area where some sheep were grazing, so he collected it.”

While Whitman determined that “it is unknown if the cartridge has any relationship to GB726 at all,” the spent shell’s proximity to the sheep herder’s location painted the sheep station as the next suspect in line, at least among USSES critics. The USSES stated last year that none of its employees had reported a conflict with a grizzly, but nonprofit Western Watersheds noted that investigators never questioned sheep station staff regarding 726.

“In all fairness to the sheep experiment station, if they are innocent, they’ve just been blackballed,” Smolczynski says. “That’s just not how you go about it … That’s one of the things I will say can kind of ruin some of our cases is that once those things get public, it’s hard to find an impartial jury if you do get something and you have to go to a jury trial. Sometimes that can really bite you.”

Regardless, there remains no trace of 726. Frank van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team to which Whitman belongs, says the bear’s disappearance was never treated as a mortality report, merely a collar retrieval. But the lack of a carcass hasn’t dampened the belief among some that 726 is dead, and that someone is to blame. Andrew Gorder, with Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, understands the problem of drawing conclusions about an ongoing investigation. He and Cottonwood’s executive director, John Meyer, say they’ve never officially declared that the USSES is to blame. “But at the same time, I think a reasonable person could reach the conclusion that this bear was killed on sheep station property,” Gorder says.

“And quite possibly by sheep station employees,” Meyer adds.

Cottonwood is currently offering a $6,500 reward for “information leading to the conviction of the person or persons responsible for killing male grizzly #726 on the USDA Sheep Experiment Station in the Centennial Mountains.”

Recipe for disaster

The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station has strict guidelines for its employees when it comes to potential conflicts with grizzlies. Specifically, herders are instructed to do “everything possible” to avoid encounters. If a bear is threatening sheep, herders are allowed to haze the animal off by discharging a rifle into the air. The USSES says it conducts a twice-annual seminar for employees in effectively identifying grizzly bears and black bears. Shooting directly at a grizzly is only permissible if “personal safety is threatened.” It’s a scenario the USSES claims has never happened.

Federal documents paint a hazy picture of the history of grizzly conflicts on sheep station property. The biological opinion issued by FWS in 2011 noted that run-ins have been “minimal,” and a draft biological assessment by the Forest Service from 2009 listed only three confirmed accounts of grizzlies on USSES land—in 1985, 1999 and 2008. The last encounter occurred on the Odell Creek allotment, but “no control actions were taken and sheep were moved without further incident.” Both documents state there have been no grizzly captures, relocations or mortalities relating to sheep station activities.

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  • Alex Sakariassen
  • Rancher Jim Hagenbarth feels there’s plenty of room in the Centennials for ranchers and grizzlies.

However, a draft environmental assessment of USSES operations reveals that in August 2007, a herder found several dead ewes on the Odell Creek allotment. Although the evidence was inconclusive and no management action was taken, grizzlies were not excluded from suspicion.

The concerns some environmental groups are espousing for grizzlies in the Centennials aren’t far removed from the issue of how wildlife officials have handled wolves on the USSES landscape. In 2009, the Sage Creek pack was found responsible for killing more than a dozen sheep station sheep. FWP removed six adult wolves from the population throughout that summer, before deciding to remove the entire pack. Black bears have proven a similar problem for the sheep station. In 1988 alone, wildlife officials killed 11 problem black bears on the Odell Creek allotment, though according to federal records, fewer than 15 have been killed since.

Further adding to the question of grizzly mortalities on sheep station property is a document secured by the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center this May. The two pages are described as meeting notes between the FWS and the USSES from a “formal consultation” in March 2010. The document states “we also have information that grizzly bears have killed sheep on allotments adjacent to the Sheep Station. Additionally, within the past 8 years, there have been several grizzly bear mortalities near the Sheep Station.”

The document raises a broader question for the USSES and the Centennials as a whole. If an expanding grizzly population becomes habituated to feeding on the sheep station’s livestock, the habit may carry over to neighboring private pastures. That impact hasn’t specifically been addressed in reviews of the sheep station. And it could have dire consequences not just for the bears, but for the willingness of local ranchers to accommodate their presence.

“The problem with the sheep station is a fed bear is a dead bear, and there’s been plenty of conflicts of bears eating sheep on sheep station property and around the area in the past,” Meyer says. “It’s a recipe for disaster. If we want to recover grizzly bears, if the U.S. government is serious about … delisting them, it needs to do everything in its power to ensure that they can maintain genetic connectivity and that they’re not getting in trouble, getting shot or getting habituated to eating sheep on sheep station property.

Bill West hasn’t noticed any overt hostility toward grizzlies in the larger Centennial neighborhood. Ranchers don’t necessarily have “a hyper-passion for them,” but they appreciate the occasional sighting from a distance, as a reminder that “they’re living in wild country.” West remembers talking to one rancher whose family sometimes grazes cattle on the refuge. He’d seen a sow with cubs near Red Rock Pass, and West got the notion it was a “top 10” experience for him. That sentiment could shift if depredation becomes an increased problem.

“It’s like a 50-50 mixed review, I think,” West says. “I’ve talked to ranchers down there where it’s just like the wolf. It’s one more thing they don’t want to deal with.”

With biologists still working toward delisting, ranchers like Hagenbarth will have to decide how best to coexist with bears. Delisting happened once before in Yellowstone, a development that promised to ease the prospect of livestock conflicts for ranchers. But environmentalists succeeded in having the species relisted in 2009, positing that reduction in white bark pine due to climate change has left grizzlies without a staple food source.

“The livestock people are going to have to live with the wolf and the bear,” Hagenbarth says. “But we can only do it if they allow us to manage the problem bears.”

There’s no indication 726 himself was a problem bear. According to Whitman’s report, there were no dead sheep in the Odell Creek area in the wake of 726’s disappearance. The Agricultural Research Service has publicly stated that there were no known grizzly sightings or conflicts on USSES property at the time. Evidence of dead sheep—or any evidence of a conflict at all—would go a long way in explaining why 726 went missing to begin with, and which suspects would have had motive.

“The bear’s dead, there’s no question about that,” Hagenbarth says. “But lord knows who shot him.”

Running silent

726’s disappearance has highlighted longstanding concerns in the environmental community over sheep grazing in the Centennials, specifically the grazing done by the USSES. Nonprofits sued the station before to conduct a full environmental impact statement, which was due out last summer and has yet to be released. Now the USSES is headed back to court, facing a demand for a new biological opinion and a temporary injunction against sheep grazing on its allotments in the Centennials. 726 is merely serving as a reminder of why plaintiffs have been so critical.

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  • Alex Sakariassen
  • The disappearance of 726 has highlighted greater concerns among environmentalists for the safety of an expanding population.

“I think we were already headed that way,” Meyer says of the litigation. “But this just reaffirmed the idea that they need to revisit whether sheep should be grazed in that area.”

Calls to USSES station manager Greg Lewis for comment in this story went unreturned.

Bill West suspects the targeting of the sheep station might be due to its historic silence. West says the USSES and Lewis tend to keep a low profile. If they wanted to change public opinion and avoid the blame game in situations like the disappearance of 726, they might want to “stand tall and be a savior to the sheep industry.”

“I think that’s become a problem,” West says. “They’re back on their heels too much, and nobody’s got a view of them on this side of the mountains as part of the community.”

That silence would seem to explain why the station has long been the center of rumors and conspiracy theories. The draft environmental impact statement for the USSES references past studies that estimate “a substantial amount of grizzly bear mortality might occur from unreported sheep-grizzly bear conflicts and subsequent poaching of grizzly bears (by sheep herders) in order to reduce economic losses. To some extent, the belief that this still occurs and is applicable to the Sheep Station activities persists in the small towns and restaurants that surround the Centennial Mountains.” The document does, however, add that unreported grizzly mortalities on the USSES “are unlikely to occur today.”

What Hagenbarth now fears, amid the fallout from 726’s disappearance, is a push to the other extreme: giving wildlife precedence over people. Environmentalists are targeting the USSES for now. Hagenbarth is convinced that he’s next. He says there’s plenty of room for both ranchers and an expanding grizzly population, but feels that the disappearance of one bear will eventually be used to push him off the land. “I can’t afford to spend a lot of money fighting them,” he says.

Meyer insists that’s not the end goal. What happened to 726 “wasn’t terribly surprising,” he says, again doubting the law enforcement perspective that 726 could still be out there, alive and collarless. But Cottonwood and other environmental firms already had their concerns with the USSES.

“We’ve never said that we’re against all grazing, and we’re not,” Meyer says. “I’m all for keeping small operations on the landscape. I don’t want to put people out of work … That’s not what I’m interested in. But I’m also not interested in people doing things they shouldn’t be doing, hurting grizzly bears. There’s a balance that needs to be struck, and if the sheep station has to stop grazing in the Centennials, it doesn’t mean they have to shut down their entire operation. They have other allotments that are outside of grizzly use areas. We’ve never said that the entire sheep station should be shut down.”

Whether or not the Centennials remain home to livestock, grizzlies are already here. Signs at the Odell Creek trailhead explicitly warn visitors to be wary of bears. 726 isn’t the first to attempt to navigate this area. He won’t be the last.

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