It seems like everybody loves grizzly bears these days. They're one of the most recognizable emblems of Montana's rugged western culture. Just look at the shops in Missoula: Grizzly Grocery, Grizzly Hackle, Grizzly Liquor. The bear has been the University of Montana's mascot for over a century. UM even toted grizzly cubs to sports games up until the 1960s; now a person in a grizzly costume, the crowd-pleasing, back-flipping Monte, has replaced them.
Yet perceptions of the bears as ferocious, carnivorous beasts persist in parts of rural Montana, even though the idea of the grizzly as a man-eater is a gross exaggeration. It was western settlers who embraced that notion, followed by ranchers, hunters, and poachers, who used it to justify destroying the species. Some estimate that there were as many as 100,000 grizzlies in the lower 48 states in the early 19th century. Now, according to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, fewer than 1,500 remain.
That grizzlies are not already extinct is due in part to the change in conservation values that came about in the 1970s. In 1975, under the Endangered Species Act, the federal government listed the bear as threatened. Since 1983, a coalition of federal and state agencies, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, has overseen recovery efforts. The bears are now identified by five recovery zones—the Yellowstone, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirks, the Selway-Bitterroot, and the North Cascades. One of them, the Northern Continental Divide, may be approaching the day when Endangered Species Act protections are no longer needed. And that has biologists drafting future management plans for the big bears even as some conservation groups and others fret about delisting them.
Grizzlies are "a success story in the making right now," says Jonathan Proctor, Rocky Mountain Region representative for the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. "The population is expanding, protections are working, more and more people who live around the NCDE area are taking great steps to coexist with grizzlies...Everyone wants the grizzlies to recover to the point where delisting can occur. Obviously we do. The question is, is it at that point or not?"
Their numbers in the NCDE have grown by an estimated 3 percent a year for the last 10 years. There are now more than 900 grizzlies roaming Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and adjoining lands. Just over half appear to be females, biologists say.
That success has come about primarily because rural Montanans no longer fear the bears as they once did, says Chuck Jonkel, one of the state's most recognized bear experts and the co-founder of the Great Bear Foundation. Jonkel, white-haired and grizzled, has spent decades researching grizzlies along the Rocky Mountain Front. He still remembers when residents in small towns like Choteau would host anti-grizzly parades. Ranchers shot bears on sight. People spread stories about man-eaters. A grizzly anywhere near town was rare and unwelcome. Jonkel recalls the widely publicized Night of the Grizzlies, an incident from August 1967 in which two young women were killed by grizzlies on the same night in Glacier National Park, leaving Montanans baying for grizzly blood. "Two young, pretty girls in the same night couldn't possibly happen," he says. "Well, it did. Million-to-one that it would, but that really hurt the bear." Their numbers were already alarmingly low, he says. "Then that happened, and there was a lot of people just shooting grizzlies when they were hunting, thinking 'Night of the Grizzlies,' 'Night of the Grizzlies,' 'Night of the Grizzlies.'"
Decades passed before many visitors felt safe in Glacier Park. Gradually, discussions about safe co-habitation and the importance of conservation began to stick and fear dissipated, replaced by a recognition that bears have an important role in the landscape. Now, "people say, 'Hey, we saw a grizzly bear walk through our yard,' and they're amazed and pleased," Jonkel says. "It used to be, 'Come and kill that goddamn bear. It's going to eat my kid.'"
And now the bears are moving out of the mountains.
When the first grizzlies were spotted returning to the plains near Choteau, Browning, and Augusta, Chris Servheen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's grizzly bear recovery coordinator, figured it would take them 10 years to reach the Missouri River breaks, near Great Falls. Just a few years later, in 2009, a grizzly wandered 177 miles from the mountains, winding up north of Great Falls near Loma. There were more grizzly sightings on the plains in 2010, which Jonkel sees as proof that not only are people learning to live with big bears but also that grizzlies are learning to live with humans. "It's kind of like Montana ranchers," he says. "They see a shiny car two miles away and the dust cloud's a little too big. Well, 'I don't like that guy. The car's too shiny, the car's moving too fast.' Bears are the same way. They're as touchy as Montana ranchers."
In the Blackfoot Valley, which is also in the NCDE, the bears might still be feeling touchy. On Sunday, May 15, state Fish, Wildlife and Parks opened a game range in the Blackfoot Clearwater Wildlife Management Area to hundreds of people hoping to find shed antlers. Within an hour, a Missoula man scared up a grizzly sow with two cubs. According to the man's story, corroborated by eyewitnesses, the bear charged to within eight yards of him before he fired at it with his sidearm and then fled. The sow pursued him another five yards. The man fired a second shot and downed the bear, then called FWP, which determined the grizzly was fatally injured and euthanized her. The cubs were taken to the state's wildlife rehab facility, in Helena, and will probably be sent to a zoo. "It's always a shame to lose a breeding-age female," says FWP biologist Jay Kolbe. "That's the most critical population segment and it's one we monitor for recovery...But she's one of many in the central Blackfoot."
Kolbe notes the man was not carrying bear spray.
As the grizzly population in the NCDE grows, expanding into historic grizzly habitat like the Blackfoot Valley, the upper Flathead Valley, and the Rocky Mountain Front, many are wondering when the bears will lose the protections of the Endangered Species Act. The big bruins seem ready, biologists say. But are people? And if the recent wolf wars are any guide, would that really be what's best for the bears?
The wolf precedent
In 1973, two years before grizzlies were declared threatened, the federal government listed gray wolves in the West as an endangered species. Despised by ranchers, feared as predators, the wolves had been persecuted alongside grizzlies for a century. They were trapped, hunted, and poisoned to the verge of extinction.