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Grizzly bears continue to expand range, including the Bitterroot

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Grizzly bears continue to expand range, including the Bitterroot

In this July 6, 2011, photo, a grizzly bear roams near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park. Grizzlies in Montana continue to expand their range.

A young adult male grizzly bear that went on a walk-about this summer spent a few weeks visiting the East Fork of the Bitterroot.

He was one of four grizzly bears that wildlife officials confirmed in the Upper Clark Fork and Bitterroot Valleys this year. Although grizzly bears aren’t as numerous in the Deer Lodge, Flint Creek and Bitterroot valleys as some other parts of western Montana, sightings have steadily increased over the past decade.

Longtime Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear biologist Jamie Jonkel wouldn’t be surprised if more grizzlies were spotted south of I-90 when hunters take to the woods this fall.

A young hunter had a close encounter with what he was certain was a grizzly bear last fall near the Bass Creek overlook. In 2019, a grizzly bear spent some time in the Bitterroot Mountains around Big Creek Lakes. The year before a young grizzly was captured at a golf course north of Stevensville.

The grizzly that spent the end of June and early July in the East Fork of the Bitterroot was captured last fall between Deerlodge and Drummond in the Garrison Junction area after it got into someone’s chickens.

It was moved to the south end of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and remained north of I-90 until it denned in the Seeley Lake area last winter. Once spring arrived, he hung around the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Areas before deciding to head south. Around Drummond, it crossed I-90 and traveled through the Flint Creek Range and into the headwaters of Rock Creek before going over the top of the Moose Creek drainage and dropping into the East Fork of the Bitterroot.

Jonkel received several reports this summer of people finding grizzly bear tracks in the East Fork, but there were no confirmed sightings of the bear, he said.

The grizzly went back over the mountains and is now roaming the Flint Creek Range.

“We have seen more and more grizzlies appear south of I-90,” Jonkel said. “Some of them seem to be moving down the Sapphire Range and going into the Pintlers and Big Hole. Some of those bears have wrapped around the Idaho side.”

“It just shows that I-90 is a barrier, but bears are not stopping there,” he said.

“We’ve had enough confirmed grizzly bears to remind us to expect grizzlies anywhere in the western half of Montana and not just in those spots where we tend to think they are common,” Jonkel said.

This summer produced a bumper crop of hawthorn and chokecherries in western Montana’s river bottoms. Bears have been taking full advantage of that food source, he said.

“With apples coming on, if you don’t want to have bears in your backyard, people need to glean their fruit trees,” he said.

Tips for traveling in the backcountry include:

  • Be aware of your surroundings and look for bear sign.
  • Read signs at trailheads and stay on trails. Be especially careful around creeks and in areas with dense brush.
  • Carry bear spray. Know how to use it and be prepared to deploy it immediately.
  • Travel in groups whenever possible and make casual noise, which can help alert bears to your presence.
  • Stay away from animal carcasses, which often attract bears.
  • Follow food storage orders from the applicable land management agency.
  • If you encounter a bear, never approach it. Leave the area when it is safe to do so.
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