MISSOULA, Mont. — A grizzly bear has ambled across the southern border of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and onto Missoula's urban fringe.
"It looks like she did it within a few days — looked out of the trees above Grant Creek, heard all the noise and saw all the stuff and didn't come down," said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Missoula. "That's good. But there will be others."
The visit took place in October 2011. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks researchers learned about it when they recovered the 4-year-old female grizzly's radio collar on March 26, 2012, near her den along the Jocko River on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The collar had a device that recorded its location every six hours.
About 1,000 grizzly bears live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which extends from Glacier National Park south through the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountains wildernesses. The big bears have drifted farther south along the Blackfoot River drainage into the Garnet Mountains and occasionally crossed Interstate 90 between Rock Creek and Drummond.
But they've rarely traveled into the Rattlesnake Wilderness north of Missoula, let alone approached the edge of the city limits.
"We've been saying for a long time there's going to be a griz showing up here," Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear manager Jamie Jonkel said Tuesday. "For years, we've been working hard with the communities like Missoula, Seeley Lake, Clinton and Frenchtown, getting them ready. Those hard efforts those community groups did will start to pay off as we start seeing more and more of these guys."
Jonkel said he'd had frequent eyewitness reports of grizzlies in the Rattlesnake as well as the Grant Creek, Butler Creek and LaValle Creek drainages. But this was the first bear confirmed by satellite mapping to have visited the area.
In Kalispell, FWP biologist Rick Mace has been studying the grizzly's collar data. He said Confederated Salish and Kootenai bear wardens caught her on the reservation on Aug. 3, 2011, while trying to capture a different problem bear near Post Creek. She spent most of the next two months in the Mission Mountains and visited the east shore of Flathead Lake.
On Oct. 10, she got caught again raiding an apple orchard on Flathead's east shore. Tribal biologists relocated her to the Jocko River drainage east of St. Ignatius.
Then she headed west and crossed U.S. Highway 93 near Arlee. It's uncertain if she used one of the new wildlife under- or overpasses built there in the past few years. Survey cameras in the area recorded a grizzly by one of the underpasses, but the date doesn't match the collar data for when she crossed.
On Oct. 14, 2011, she turned back southeast and crossed the highway again. She followed a power line corridor near Joe's Smoke Ring south toward Missoula and skirted around the Montana Snowbowl ski resort. Then she headed back northeast into the Rattlesnake Wilderness, bagging ridgetops on both sides of Rattlesnake Creek on the 17th.
By the 19th, she was back on the Flathead Indian Reservation north of the Rattlesnake. She denned in the hills above the Jocko River. Shortly after she ended hibernation in the spring of 2012, she slipped off her collar near the den site.
"One of the biggest things we've blown out of the water with these GPS collars is we thought they were elevation migrants," Mace said. "We thought they went down in spring and up in summer. In fact, they're up and down all over the place. There's no change across the season. A grizzly can be at the top of McDonald Peak on Monday and down in the reservation valley the next day. They can be at any elevation, any habitat, any time."
Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com