Letters from the West

Idahoans need to get ready for grizzly migration to central Idaho wilderness

A 3-year-old male grizzly bear that broke several flags and dug up a green on the Whitetail Golf Course in Stevensville, Montana, has prompted officials in Big Sky Country to take a new look at how it manages bears and people.

And Charles Mark, the supervisor of the Salmon-Challis National Forest, thinks Idaho needs to do the same.

Grizzly bears have expanded their range by 34 percent over the last decade, biologists say. That is putting grizzlies, a ferocious, at times man-eating predator, on the edge of cities like Missoula and communities like Stevensville, Coeur d’Alene and Driggs in eastern Idaho.

“They’re right on our front doorstep,” Mark said, who lives in Salmon.

In 2000, Idaho rejected a proposal to reintroduce grizzly bears into the 22-million-acres of roadless and wilderness lands in central Idaho. A couple of bears have been seen in the area, but so far none have been detected living there.

“I suspect you guys will be seeing more grizzly bears over there in the next 10 years,” said Jamie Jonkel, the Montana biologist who captured the young bear on the golf course, now known as Stevi.

Jonkel put a collar on Stevi and has been keeping track of him since.

Montana gets proactive about bears

The Whitetail Golf Course is in an area designated as unoccupied grizzly bear habitat called the Bitterroot Ecosystem that extends into Central Idaho. If a grizzly moves in and make its home in the area, the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must protect it as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. That places restrictions on development, road-building, hunting and other activities.

Montana had no plan in place for how to deal with a bear in the ecosystem -- aside from a state law that wouldn’t allow officials to move it to the nearest national forest land only a few miles west of the golf course. Instead Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists trapped the bear and took him north into the Blackfoot River watershed, a part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which has more than 1,000 bears.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced in March he would appoint an advisory council. That was prompted, in part, by the expanding bear population in the Northern Rockies and court decisions that stopped delisting in the Yellowstone ecosystem, which has more than 700 grizzlies.

“As bears continue to expand in numbers and habitat, we must identify durable and inclusive strategies to address current issues and prepare for the future,” Bullock wrote in a memo to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Martha Williams.

The Idaho timber industry, the National Wildlife Federation and Idaho sportsmen in the 1990s proposed reintroducing grizzly bears as an experimental-nonessential population, similar to how wolves were returned. This would have avoided many of the restrictions. But the plan was attacked by people on both sides of the debate. Then-Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who labeled grizzlies “flesh-eating carnivores,” said they did not belong in Central Idaho, and the George W. Bush administration killed the idea.

Wolf reintroduction faced backlash

The backlash from wolf reintroduction — politically polarizing even as it has been a biological success story — ensured the idea won’t be repeated. But the area from the Sawtooth Mountains on the south to the wilds south of Interstate 90 in the north remain excellent grizzly habitat despite the low numbers of their main historic food source, salmon.

Roads remain a major barrier to bears along with the hundreds of ranches, orchards, second homes and garbage that get bears into trouble before they make it to the wilds. But Stevi wasn’t the first.

On Sept. 3, 2007, a black bear hunter shot a 5- to 10-year-old male grizzly in the upper Kelly Creek drainage along the North Fork of the Clearwater River, within the Bitterroot recovery area. DNA tests showed it came from the Selkirk Mountains 140 air miles to the north, which meant he crossed U.S. 95, U.S. 200 and Interstate 90 to get to the Kelly Creek area.

Then there was Ethyl. The 19-year-old sow grizzly who walked in 2013 from the east side of Hungry Horse Reservoir south of Glacier to the Shoshone County Airport in Smelterville, just north of the Central Idaho recovery area.

Several bears have been monitored on a few meters from Interstate 15 in eastern Idaho, the line where they would again be protected as a threatened species after delisting in Yellowstone.

“If we sit on our hands and just let the bears come back, we’re going to have a mess on our hands,” Mark said.

Starting the conversation before conflict

Mark serves as chairman of the Bitterroot Ecosystem subcommittee on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, a state and local group overseeing recovery of the bears in the lower 48 states. He wants the committee to start having public meetings to discuss strategies on public education about issues like bear safety, sanitation and food storage for residents, campers outfitters and others.

These are the kind of programs that have worked to reduce conflicts between bears and people in eastern Idaho’s Island Park and along the Tetons. Local governments, Fish and Game and environmental groups have helped residents “bearproof” their garbage and yards. Bear numbers have risen dramatically over the past 20 years, and people have adjusted to having them as neighbors.

Idahoans in eastern Idaho and up north, where there are grizzlies in the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak mountains, have a good record of making room for bears, said Toby Boudreau Idaho Department of Fish and Game big game manager. But he’s not sure central Idaho residents are ready yet.

“It’s still a pretty raw issue in Idaho,” Boudreau said.

Lemhi County Commissioner Brett Barsalou was sheriff when wolves were reintroduced in the Frank Church River-of-No-Return Wilderness in 1995. He often found himself in the middle of federal agents and local ranchers trying to keep the peace.

Today he support’s Mark’s grizzly conversation, recognizing that the forest supervisor isn’t trying to bring bears here.

Stevi the bear still runs free

Once Jonkel released Stevi into the wild, the bear moved around a lot but did not get into trouble except when he got into garbage left unattended. But recently he was photographed with another young male as they got into an open barn and stole some grain.

When the other bear returned and broke into a locked barn, officials determined he had to be killed. But they allowed Stevi another chance.

“I’m kind of like the parole officer,” Jonkel said.

Grizzlies are smart animals who sometimes learn to stay out of trouble as they get older, he said.

It’s just a matter of time before some of the dozens of subadult grizzlies that are now born in the northern Rockies make it through the developed areas, the garbage cans, the orchards and ranches to the huge wide open wilderness in central Idaho, Jonkel said.

“They get pretty savvy,” he said.

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