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The Golf Course Grizzly: First Hope Of Biological Connectivity For Bruins?

Scientists have long supposed grizzly populations between ecosystems might link up. David Stalling wonders when it will happen.

A grizzly in the northern Rockies. Photo courtesy Angela Bohlke/National Park Service
A grizzly in the northern Rockies. Photo courtesy Angela Bohlke/National Park Service
Like an extinguished star in a constellation, grizzly bears have been presumed absent from the Bitterroot Ecosystem of central Idaho and western Montana for generations. Rumors of grizzlies in the Bitterroot have circulated for years. Reports have often been met with the same sort of skepticism as Bigfoot sightings.  

The Bitterroot Valley in western Montana sits along the Bitterroot River, between the Bitterroot range and the Sapphire Mountains. Because the valley consists of a lot of public wildlands with productive habitat, the valley could provide a critical corridor linking grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem to the isolated population of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – boosting the long-term viability of wild grizzlies. 

Such a connection would mean the end of two isolated island clusters of bears set unto themselves and allow for, potentially, a contiguous bear population stretching from the Red Desert of Wyoming to the U.S.-Canada border—in other words, a region of grizzlies which would be foundational to true lasting bear recovery in the Lower 48.

Large numbers of grizzlies inhabited the Bitterroot Valley in the past; Native Americans and early European explorers passed on lots of stories. In 1932, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported the killing of what was widely considered “the last known grizzly in the Bitterroot Valley.” 

But grizzly tracks were confirmed in 1946 – perhaps from a bear that was passing through? Then, in 1998, a Forest Service packer reported seeing a grizzly in the North Fork of Fish Creek, and soon after that another Forest Service employee claimed to have found grizzly tracks. The Forest Service reported that both sightings were from “experienced woodsmen and can be considered objective observers.” 

More tantalizing evidence trickled in. In 2002, a grizzly reportedly passed through the Sapphire Mountains from Rock Creek and into the Bitterroot Valley. In 2007, a black-bear hunter mistakenly killed a 400 pound male grizzly in Idaho’s Clearwater drainage, just north of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, and within 40 miles of the Bitterroot Valley.  
Map assembled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showing the different island populations of grizzly bears in the northern Rockies.
Map assembled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showing the different island populations of grizzly bears in the northern Rockies.
DNA linked that grizzly to the Selkirk Ecosystem, indicating that he traveled at least 140 straight-line miles south. Six years later, a 20-year old female grizzly known as “Ethyl” took her GPS radio collar on a 2,800 mile walkaboutthat brought her into the northwest part of the Bitterroot Valley.  Ethyl also safely crossed Interstate 90 twice.

With grizzlies expanding more and more into their historical ranges, it was just a matter of time before someone came up with more solid evidence of a grizzly in the Bitterroot. 

That evidence finally came about just a few weeks ago, on Saturday, November 3, 2018: a young male grizzly (about 250 pounds), caught in a culvert trap, on a Bitterroot Valley golf course. On the Whitetail Golf Course bordering the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, just north of Stevensville, Montana, an unknown bear had been snapping flagsticks and digging holes on the golf course. He left tracks and scat as evidence, but, understandably, everyone assumed the culprit was a black bear. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) set up a trap. 

When golf pro Jason Lehtola showed up for work early Saturday morning, he heard noise coming from the trap and walked toward the trap from the back side to check it out. The bear aggressively shook the trap and growled, startling Jason. He backed off, got in his truck, and drove to the front of the trap where he could more clearly see the bear. It had huge claws. When he called Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks to report the captured grizzly, he was met with skepticism. But the proof was in the trap. 
When golf pro Jason Lehtola showed up for work early Saturday morning, he heard noise coming from the trap and walked toward the trap from the back side to check it out. The bear aggressively shook the trap and growled. When he called Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks to report the captured grizzly, he was met with skepticism. But the proof was in the trap. 
The bear was relocated to the lower Blackfoot Valley, northeast of Missoula.  Responded state Bear Management Specialist Jamie Jonkel, son of the late famous bear researcher Dr. Charles Jonkel: “It wasn’t the first grizzly to enter the Bitterroot Valley, and it won’t be the last.” 

For bear advocates, that’s good news, and confirms what was already suspected. It brought to mind my own small part of past efforts to prove the presence of grizzlies in the Bitterroot. 

It was early May, 2001 – the worst possible time to head into the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, but the best time to search for grizzly hair. A few days earlier, two aerial observers spotted fresh bear tracks high in the backcountry and traced them back to the very place where the bear had popped out of the snow, a furry eruption from a long winter’s nap. It’s just what they were looking for; since grizzlies tend to den higher than black bears, and this den sat at about 7,000 feet, it just could be a grizzly’s. 

They plotted the spot on a map and took a few photos to assist efforts to locate the den from the ground – if they could find anyone foolhardy enough to cross a raging creek and risk avalanche danger. 

That’s where fellow Bitterrooter Larry Campbell and I came in. Our mission was straightforward enough: hike, swim and snowshoe to the bear’s den, crawl into it, find some hair and bring it back. 

The trip was part of the Great Grizzly Search, a collaborative effort by eight conservation and scientific groups to try and document the presence of grizzlies within the 1.4 million-acre Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and surrounding country in southwest Montana and central Idaho, an immense 26,073-square-mile chunk of wildlands that hold the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 states. 
In 2001, the author took part in the Greater Grizzly Search to determine if grizzlies had found their way into the Selway Bitterroot Ecosystem. As part of the quest, Stalling climbed into a bear den and, in terms of evidence, came out empty handed.  Photos courtesy David Stalling
In 2001, the author took part in the Greater Grizzly Search to determine if grizzlies had found their way into the Selway Bitterroot Ecosystem. As part of the quest, Stalling climbed into a bear den and, in terms of evidence, came out empty handed. Photos courtesy David Stalling
For me, this mission was a return to familiar, healing wildness. It once took me 14 days to cross some of this country on snowshoes and skis, a125-mile solo midwinter trek from Lost Horse Creek near Darby, Montana, to Elk City, Idaho. I’ve backpacked through these mountains in the summer, fished and swam in most of the lakes, hunted elk and picked huckleberries in the fall and searched for dropped antlers in the spring. I’ve scaled its jagged, granite walls, and slipped, cussed and climbed my way across spruce bottoms tangled in blowdown. I’ve nearly drowned in its creeks and survived a close call with avalanche. I’ve seen elk, moose, wolverines, black bear, mountain lions and wolves, but never a grizzly in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness.  

Of course, that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. 

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) doesn’t think so. In 2001, the agency approved a plan to “reintroduce” 25 grizzlies to the area as an “experimental, nonessential” population, which means they would not have been fully protected under the Endangered Species Act as they are elsewhere where the bears are known to exist. 

The novel concept was a compromise crafted by an unusual coalition including the National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife and the Idaho forest products industry. 

Other groups, including the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Great Bear Foundation, Friends of the Bitterroot, Friends of the Clearwater, Wilderness Watch, Sierra Club and the Craighead Wildlife/Wildlands Institute did not support the plan. They believed grizzlies already inhabited the Bitterroot Ecosystem and deserved full protection under the Endangered Species Act. 

Thus was born the Great Grizzly Search, to prove the Great Bears were already there. These groups endorsed a more viable option of protecting habitat, letting bears roam in on their own, and perhaps “augmenting” existing populations by bringing in a few more. A sound plan, to be sure, but unlikely to receive political backing in a region where “No Grizzlies” stickers adorn many a pickup truck. 

“It’s just one more thing we don’t need here,” said one local resident at a public meeting. “We’re already fighting the economy, development, environmentalists and terrorists.” The governors of Idaho and Montana spoke against it, as did Congressional leaders. “They are schizophrenic, manic-depressive animals,” said then-Idaho Representative Helen Chenoweth. “I don’t want them at all in Idaho.”

Robust populations of grizzlies roam Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear  Wilderness areas, and other parts of northern Montana. There are also grizzlies in the Seeley, Swan and Blackfoot Valleys, and in the Yaak – a place less wild than the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. And there’s the Yellowstone grizzly population, some 700 bears 140 miles to the southeast. 

But there’s no connection between the northern and southern populations, something wildlife biologists say is necessary to ensure genetic viability and long-term health of grizzlies. In its 1993 Grizzly Recovery Plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service emphasized the importance of restoring viable populations within the Selway Bitterroot area, providing a vital link where say a boar from the north might conceivably impregnate a sow from the south. 

Some thought this may have already happened. The Fish and Wildlife Service said there was no evidence. So the agency persisted with the “experimental, non-essential” plan. No matter. Soon after taking office in 2001, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton put a halt to the grizzly restoration plan, experimental or not. 

All the more reason to prove their existence; if grizzlies still roam the Bitterroot mountains, the law mandates protection and restoration. 

Which is why, in early May of 2001, Larry Campbell and I swam a frigid, violent creek and snowshoed our way up into the wilds. We pitched a tent atop packed snow near a frozen lake and then, free at least from heavy packs, made quick time traveling to the rocky ridge where we knew at least one bear had slept the winter. 

The rain below had been snow up high and the bear’s tracks were now covered. But we found a whitebark pine snag and a prominent rock outcrop that matched those in the photos taken from the plane, which in turn helped us find the general location of where the bear had emerged. After some time, and lots of digging, we discovered some discolored snow, light brown with some bear hair, where the bear must have tunneled out. 

Like a gold vein leading to the mother lode, we were able to trace the bear’s path as we dug. About 10 feet or so down, knowing we were close, I asked Larry if he thought the bear might have been driven back to the den by the storm. “I don’t know,” he replied. And it caused us both to pause. 

Larry stood ready with pepper spray while I continued digging. Soon enough, we reached a dark tunnel under the rocks. With headlamp on, I cautiously climbed in, barely squeezing my way through an opening as wide as my shoulders into a dusky room the size of a small tent. Luckily, no one was home. A musky odor remained, along with a soft bed made of bear grass. Hoar frost hung from the ceiling where moisture rising from the bear all winter froze to the granite wall. 

And there was hair, lots of hair. 

It seemed promising at first. The hair was brown with light, seemingly silver tips. The late Charles Jonkel , who spearheaded the Great Grizzly Search, suspected grizzly when he first examined it. But the samples didn’t have enough follicles attached, we were told, making it too tough to analyze for DNA. 
Doug Peacock, the Green Beret medic who served in Vietnam, has become a leading voice in grizzly bear conservation and recently co-founded Save the Yellowstone Grizzly (https://savetheyellowstonegrizzly.org). In his earlier years, Peacock took part in the Greater Grizzly Search trying to determine if bears are inhabiting both the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem and the southern Rockies in Colorado. Photo courtesy Doug Peacock
Doug Peacock, the Green Beret medic who served in Vietnam, has become a leading voice in grizzly bear conservation and recently co-founded Save the Yellowstone Grizzly (https://savetheyellowstonegrizzly.org). In his earlier years, Peacock took part in the Greater Grizzly Search trying to determine if bears are inhabiting both the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem and the southern Rockies in Colorado. Photo courtesy Doug Peacock
Larry went back to the site that fall, with renowned grizzly bear expert Doug Peacock, author of “Grizzly Years,” to gather more hair and look for other sign. Doug said the area was ideal grizzly habitat, and that the den just might be a grizzly’s. The DNA tests came back “inconclusive.”


But there’s nothing inconclusive about a young male grizzly bear in a bear trap on the Whitetail golf  course. He was there, in the Bitterroot Valley. Which means there may be others. Which means he may come back. If he does, I hope he stays away from golf courses, and homes, and humans, and trouble.   

Other grizzlies have safely crossed I-90 and moved into the in-between country that leads toward the Bitterroot, or toward Greater Yellowstone.  Some, like the golf course grizzly, have found trouble and been hauled back north.  Some have died, including one near Anaconda in 2005, felled by a poacher’s arrow.  Still, other grizzlies have appeared briefly, and remained mysteries. 

Like the young grizzly in the Sapphire Mountains from 2002:  Did he end up in the Big Hole Valleytwo years ago?  FWP’s Jamie Jonkel speculated:  “He might be dead, he might have headed into the Pintlers, or maybe he went back towards the Blackfoot.”

I hope not. I like to imagine that young grizzly crossed the river and headed west, maybe up Sweathouse Creek towards Bear Lake and Bear Creek Pass, then south, past Roaring Lion Creek and Lost Horse, past Lower Bear Lake and Upper Bear Lake, past the Grizzly Lakes and onward, south and west towards Bigfoot Lake.  I hope that grizzly, and his DNA, have kept exploring, kept re-learning this ancestral habitat, deep into the heart of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness.    

David Stalling
About David Stalling

David Stalling is a former Force Recon Marine and former conservation editor for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Bugle magazine. He won an award while writing for Bugle about hunting. Today he is a writer, wildlife advocate, father and hunter living in western Montana. He spends a lot of time randomly roaming remote, wild country inhabited by wild grizzlies. Very likely, while you read these words, he is thawing out elk or deer meat to have for supper this week.
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