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USFWS to take over relocation of Montana grizzlies outside recovery areas

Grizzly Bear
Posted at 10:22 AM, Oct 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-28 12:22:28-04

MISSOULA — As more grizzly bears move closer to a region with a somewhat unprepared human population, wolf snares and the limitations of bear relocation add to the concerns of Bitterroot wildlife and land managers.

The Bitterroot subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee learned on Wednesday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) would be taking over some Montana state duties as reports of grizzly bears wandering closer to the Bitterroot Mountains increase.

USFWS Wildlife Service grizzly bear biologist Jennifer Fortin-Noreus provided more background for an earlier report of two grizzly bears photographed near the East Fork Bitterroot River.

The photos were the product of this summer’s grizzly study that attempted to document the presence of any grizzly bears outside of recovery areas. From south of the Big Hole Valley northwest almost to Lookout Pass, several technicians from the U.S. Forest Service and Defenders of Wildlife set up remote cameras on 140 scent lures surrounded by barbed wire to snag hair samples that provide DNA.

It turns out one of the bears in the photos was a young male captured and collared in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. On a map, Fortin-Noreus showed how the bear had traveled south into the northern Flint Range between Drummond and Deer Lodge. That’s where he spent most of the summer except for about three weeks in June, when he ambled south of Philipsburg all the way to near Sula before returning.

Biologists are hoping DNA analysis will provide more information about the bear that was with him in the photos. The corrals collected more than 800 hair samples, but many belonged to black bears. Only the 181 that might have been from grizzlies were sent to the lab, Fortin-Noreus said. The results might be available for the spring committee meeting.

Because this was the first year of the project, Fortin-Noreus said some lessons were learned along the way. Figuring out the best locations based upon biologists' suggestions took time. And the Big Hole region was challenging because of the many grazing allotments on national forest land around the valley.

Because cattle can destroy the barbed-wire traps, the traps were left out only during the month of June, which probably wasn’t enough time to see whether bears were present, Fortin-Noreus said.

She’s hoping to find a solution for next summer’s survey if the funding is available.

“It’s logical to leave each site up for the whole year and just re-lure it so that we can get an individual even if it’s only in the area for a short time,” Fortin-Noreus said. “For example, we were fortunate with that collared bear that we got on our camera. But if we hadn’t had it up during that three-week period when he happened to walk by, we would have missed him.”

USFWS grizzly bear biologist Wayne Kasworm told of the travels of Grizzly 890, a 5-year-old female captured and collared near Heron along the Clark Fork River near the Montana-Idaho border. After she was released about 8 miles away, she went up into the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear recovery area until late August. Then, she worked her way south of the Clark Fork River into Idaho and was roaming around the North Fork of Coeur d’Alene River a few weeks ago.

That’s still relatively far from the Bitterroot area, but biologists are interested to see where she ends up denning.

The story of Grizzly 890 also illustrates some of the threats facing grizzly bears. She was trapped because a landowner reported that she’d started digging up his dead livestock. She was removed preemptively before she could get into trouble. But this is why livestock producers either need to bury dead animals deeply or take them to landfills, Kasworm said.

In Idaho, on the other end of her journey, Grizzly 890 was reported in the area of some wolf trapping and at numerous black bear-baiting sites.

“That is a concern for what might happen,” Kasworm said. “We did monitor another bear that made it down to the Selway-Bitterroot that was a male. This one is a little different because it’s a female and it’s approaching reproductive age.”

More than one presentation led to questions about what biologists are to do with bears caught in wolf traps. The consensus appeared to be that biologists would release the bear near the location where it was trapped but there’s no written guidance.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear biologist Jamie Jonkel said he was developing a brochure for trappers on what to do because he didn’t look forward to dealing with it now that Montana allows snaring for the first time and more wolf trapping.

“I am fretting about the upcoming wolf seasons and snaring seasons in Montana,” Jonkel said. “I don’t think that a lot of folks who are trapping for wolves and coyotes are thinking about grizzlies, so we need to start hammering that message. The one that I always think about is the father-son trapping duo where the father parks the truck and says, ‘Hey boy, why don’t you run down and check out that wolf trap down in the gully.’ Kid runs down and there’s a cub in the trap guarded by a female.”

But the bigger discussion revolved around Montana’s change in policy about bear relocations.

The 2021 Legislature passed Senate Bill 337, which limits the locations where FWP biologists can release bears and doesn’t allow them to relocate any bears trapped due to human conflict outside of one of the recovery zones. For example, under this rule, FWP biologists wouldn’t have been allowed to relocate the grizzly bear trapped three years ago on the Stevensville golf course, even though the bear had not really gotten into trouble. Kasworm would also not have been able to move Grizzly 890.

The FWP Commission will be considering a list of the approved relocation sites on Thursday.

Fortin-Noreus said the USFWS would be hiring some specialists by March to take over the work of relocating conflict bears trapped outside of recovery zones. Grizzly bears are still protected under the Endangered Species Act so killing bears outside recovery areas isn’t the solution.

Fortin-Noreus said she would also be looking at the list of locations that FWP biologists used to use and probably select some of the ones that the FWP commission doesn’t consider. Some are likely to be closer to the Bitterroot recovery area.

“We would like to have the opportunity to identify some relocation sites that the Fish and Wildlife Service could use for non-conflict bears in other areas where grizzly bears may be present so we don’t have to take every grizzly bear back to the recovery zone,” Fortin-Noreus said. “We have quite an extent of range in the north and south Sapphires that is now included in areas where grizzly bears may be present. We would enjoy having a site to relocate an individual such as the Stevensville golf course bear.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.