Ground breaking – two young grizzlies make it to the Missouri River

By KARL PUCKETT • Tribune Staff Writer • June 10, 2010

Two young grizzly bears spotted Tuesday evening near Floweree between Great Falls and Fort Benton probably are the first grizzlies in several decades to make it to the Missouri River, where the bears historically lived, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

Diane Walker, who ranches near Floweree, witnessed the groundbreaking grizzlies.

“They just stopped and looked at us,” said Walker, who was with family when she saw the bears. “They didn’t seem to be frightened or anything.”

The bears were acting playful with each other, she added.

Mike Martin, a FWP game warden captain, said the bears haven’t attacked any livestock or caused other problems.

“But we want people out recreating or living in the area to be observant,” he said.

As of Wednesday evening, the bears still were in the area, according to authorities.

Two young grizzlies have made their way to the Missouri River near Floweree. They are the first two bears in recent history to make it as far as the Missouri.

Two young grizzlies have made their way to the Missouri River near Floweree. They are the first two bears in recent history to make it as far as the Missouri. (PHOTO COURTESY RICHARD LOUMA)

Mike Madel, a FWP grizzly bear management specialist, said the agency is monitoring the bears’ movements but will not take any action unless the bears kill livestock.

“They are in a relatively remote stretch of the Missouri between Great Falls and Fort Benton,” he said. “It’s possible they swim the river and get into the Highwood Mountains.”

It also is possible the grizzlies could reach the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which is located on the Missouri River in northcentral Montana.

Last year, a young grizzly traveled 100 miles along the Teton River from the Rocky Mountain Front to Loma, just 1 1/2 miles from the Missouri. But before it reached the big river, it was captured and relocated because it killed sheep.

The grizzlies spotted Tuesday evening at Floweree also traveled the Teton east from the Rocky Mountain Front, Madel said.

Later, the pair was observed traveling in Black Coulee toward the Missouri River. Madel said “it’s very likely” the bears made it to the Missouri, where grizzlies once were common.

That would make them the first grizzlies on the Missouri in recent history, Madel said. When explorers Lewis and Clark traveled through the area in 1804, grizzlies were common on the Missouri River in what is now Great Falls.

“We’re not looking for the grizzly population to move further and further east, but it is occurring naturally,” Madel said.

Eye-witness accounts and physical evidence collected this week confirmed rumors that the grizzlies were on the Teton River north of Great Falls in early June.

Walker said she was at home when her daughter-in- law Shannon Walker, who lives a quarter of a mile away from Diane Walker, called her at 8:30 p.m.

“She said, ‘My God, there’s two grizzlies in front of the hog pen,'” Diane Walker said.

The bears tore one side of the hog pen off, but no hogs were killed, Walker said.

She called the sheriff office, but in the meantime the grizzlies moved out of the hog pen and into a field at the side of the house. Walker, her son J.B. Walker, Shannon Walker and Walker’s sister and brother-in- law watched the bears from the railroad tracks.

“Then they got real playful. They’d stop and bat one another. Then they’d sit down,” she said.

Walker said residents of the area believe grizzlies will be making regular appearances on the prairie each spring.

Bears on the fringes of the core grizzly ecosystem in northcentral Montana are expanding into new areas on all sides, but the development is more dramatic east of the Front because the country there is so open, Madel said.

“Biologically, it’s just a function of population expansion,” he said.

A trend study by FWP concluded that the grizzly population in northcentral Montana is growing by 1 to 3 percent a year.

A study led by the U.S. Geological Survey previously pegged the population in that area at a minimum of 765 bears.

The population work is part of efforts to remove the bear from federal protection, which came in 1975. Madel said a team is developing a conservation strategy that is needed before the bears are considered recovered.

“Obviously, we’ve met the population criteria,” he said.

Young bears are expanding home ranges, learning from sows that are following rivers onto the prairie, Madel said. While the prairie is open, it actually c ontains surprisingly remote and ideal habitat for bears, especially along river drainages, Madel said.

However, much of that remote country also is on private land, which will necessitate FWP working with landowners on prevention measures to reduce conflicts, he said.