HAMILTON --Ravalli County Commissioner Suzie Foss wondered, at a meeting last week, about rumors of a grizzly bear spending time last year in the Ambrose Saddle of the Sapphire Mountains.
The state's local wildlife biologist told her that he'd heard the same thing, but had no definitive proof.
"I had reports of a grizzly at Ambrose Saddle, but I couldn't confirm it," said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Bitterroot-based biologist Craig Jourdonnais.
"Personally, it wouldn't surprise me. We have been getting reports of them ambling over Rock Creek and points east. There are more and more bears working their way into Western Montana."
The people who saw the bear in the Sapphires were pretty confident that it was a grizzly, Jourdonnais said.
"I've had reports of people seeing them the upper East Fork and upper Trapper Creek too," he said. "We just haven't been able to confirm those sightings."
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear biologist Jamie Jonkel said he doesn't doubt that people are seeing grizzly bears in the mountains surrounding the Bitterroot Valley.
"I'm getting more and more reports all the time from people who tell me they've seen grizzly bears in the Sapphire Range," Jonkel said. "Right now, I don't have any that I can verify. I don't have the documentation to do that."
But Jonkel knows that grizzly bears are on the move. He is finding them in places where he's never seen them before. And he's getting more and more reports from people convinced they've spotted one in other new places.
This spring, when bears start to move again, Jonkel hopes the public will pack their cameras and plastic bags to document any sign that would prove grizzly bears have moved into the neighborhood.
"For Fish, Wildlife and Parks to verify a grizzly, we either need a hair sample for DNA testing or a good photograph of tracks," he said. "It's great when people report any sightings they have to me. I keep track of all that information."
Jonkel said he gets many of his best leads from those reports.
For instance, last fall he heard that a female grizzly with sub-adults had been bothering some deer carcasses that people had hung near the town of Potamac.
"They swore up and down that it was a grizzly," he said. "I talked with another guy who swore that he had seen grizzly tracks in the same area. It's one of those things that I believe is true, but I couldn't verify."
There are plenty of places in Western Montana with new grizzly populations that have been verified. Jonkel said he has documented bears around Ovando, Elliston, Avon, Garrison and Drummond over the past couple of years.
"It wouldn't surprise me one bit to have one show up in the Bitterroot sometime soon," he said.