MISSOULA — Spring has brought bears back into action, and it’s also energized biologists overseeing the remote population of grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak mountains of northwest Montana.
“We were in negative territory, but as of this year, after several years of low mortality we’re seeing some improvement,” said Wayne Kasworm, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery coordinator in Libby. “Now we have a projected growth rate of 1.4 percent. That’s compared to the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where it’s roughly 3 percent.”
While those two huge areas each have close to 1,000 grizzlies, the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem struggles to stay around 50. It does so with about a quarter of the NCDE’s territory, which stretches from the southern tip of the Rattlesnake Wilderness north of Missoula up to Glacier National Park.
Grizzly bears were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1975. Isolated populations such as the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem typically require transplants from more successful areas to maintain genetic diversity and make up for natural and unnatural deaths.
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State and federal biologists plan to bring a new male and female grizzly to the population this summer to join two females successfully introduced last year.
Those two siblings were expected to stay together in the Spar Lake area of the Scotchman Peaks, where they were released. But Kasworm said they split up, with one moving to the main Cabinet Mountains and the other going south around Ross Creek.
Both females successfully denned and re-emerged this April.
The Cabinet-Yaak has received 17 transplanted bears since 1990. Four of those have left the area (typically heading back to the Northern Continental Divide), while four more have died.
“The loss of a bear over here is a lot more important in a population of 50 than it is in a population of a thousand,” Kasworm said. The deaths are often human-caused.
“Often what we’ve got is a bear with a bullet in it, but we don’t know how the bullet got there,” he said. “It could be malicious, self-defense, mistaken identity – all we know is it’s human involvement.”
Northwest Montana also has some of the state’s greatest concentrations of black bears, which draws hunters from both in and out of the region. Black bear hunters are required to take an identification course to recognize the differences between the two species, but mistakes still happen.
The Cabinet-Yaak area could be a relief area for grizzlies looking for new range as the Northern Continental Divide nears its carrying capacity. However, it suffers from difficult travel linkages that require bears to move through heavily populated areas.
“There’s potential for natural progression across the Salish Range from the NCDE to the Cabinet-Yaak,” said Erin Edge, northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, which works with the FWS on grizzly recovery. “But there are some real breaks. There are a lot of people in the Flathead Valley, so we’re working on ways to reduce mortality for the bears like securing garbage and electric-fencing chicken coops.”
Edge said the ongoing work to draft new management plans on the Flathead and Kootenai national forests will have a big impact on the grizzlies’ ability to move through those public lands.