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.
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?’”
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.”