TOBACCO ROOT MOUNTAINS — As Lisa Woerlein hesitantly bent to pick up the piece of bear scat with a plastic sandwich bag over her hand, her face scrunched up as if she’d bitten into a lemon.
“Lisa, cheer up,” Gregg Treinish encouraged. “You may be the person responsible for documenting grizzly bears in this region.”
Woerlein, a junior at Montana State University, managed to smile as she held the bagged scat up for a photo, but she vowed not to carry the specimen in her backpack the rest of the day.
She was one of 11 people who had signed up for a trip offered by the Bozeman group Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation on Saturday and Sunday in the Tobacco Root Mountains, just east of Sheridan, up Mill Creek. Spread out in three groups, the citizens were scouring the area for signs of grizzly bears — scat, tracks or hair — that could confirm the bruin’s presence.
“Everyone that lives around here is convinced there are grizzly bears here,” said Rebecca Skeldon of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
She was hoping the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation group might be able to find evidence that would confirm what, so far, have been unsubstantiated reports.
Mill Creek is only about 60 miles from the northwestern border of Yellowstone National Park. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes lands outside the park borders, contains an estimated 600 grizzly bears. With that many animals lumbering around on only so much turf, some bears have explored habitat farther and farther away where they can make a living.
The big bruins have been confirmed expanding to the south of the Tobacco Roots, in the Gravelly and Centennial ranges. During a talk on Saturday morning at the Branham Lakes campground, Skeldon showed the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation group the locations of one radio-collared grizzly bear sow and its two cubs that crossed from the Madison Range, to the east, into the Gravellies.
High mountains like the Tobacco Roots, which climb to more than 10,000 feet, could provide a link between bears to the north, in places like Glacier National Park, to bears in the south at Yellowstone. Any breeding between the two populations would improve the bears’ genetics.
“The Yellowstone population has been isolated for some time, but they’re not showing any decline from interbreeding yet,” Skeldon said.
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The Tobacco Roots have all of the ingredients that would make them grizzly bear-friendly, Skeldon noted, including foods such as whitebark pine nuts, elk and plants. Black bears have already found the area to their liking, as have wolves.
“This is the habitat for bears, these high areas,” Skeldon said. “We’d rather have them up here than down in Ennis or Sheridan.”
She said public opinion on the presence of bears in the mountain range is mixed. But she said that in general people are tolerant of bears because they are interested in them. She said fear is one of the main reasons people cite for wanting bears kept out of the range. But there’s only so much land to go around.
“Especially as the human population expands, grizzly bears need to have places to roam,” Skeldon said.
Because grizzly bears are still listed as an endangered species, their presence in the Tobacco Root Mountains would change how the area is managed for such things as motorized travel and logging, in addition to the information provided to people using the area.
Allan Ligon, who participated in an Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation program two weeks ago looking for grizzly bear signs on the east side of the Tobacco Roots, said they found lots of hair, scat and claw and bite marks on trees. But it will take DNA testing at a laboratory to confirm if the collected evidence belonged to black bears or a grizzly.
Ligon enjoyed the outing so much that he signed on for the trip up Mill Creek on Saturday and Sunday. He was in a group of eight led by Treinish as they scanned the forest floor, trees and muddy creek banks for bear sign. Any bear evidence found was carefully collected, the point marked on a GPS and any data about the surrounding area written down in notebooks. The evidence will eventually be given to the Forest Service. An independent lab will do the DNA work.
Each time Treinish’s group discovered a large pile of bear scat, he became animated.
“You guys don’t seem nearly as enthused as I feel,” he told the group. “Imagine if this is the first grizzly documented in this area.”