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Hunter shoots grizzly in Selway-Bitterroot

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A Tennessee hunter got what he least expected on a Labor Day outfitted black bear hunt in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho: a 450-pound grizzly bear.

The bear was killed in Idaho's North Fork Clearwater drainage three miles from the Montana border. It is the first grizzly bear verified since 1946 on the Idaho side of the 5,700-square-mile Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem.

Fish and game wardens from Montana and Idaho, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's grizzly bear recovery coordinator, Jamie Jonkel, confirmed the identity of the bear as a grizzly. The 6- to 10-year-old male had a silvery back and was in good physical condition.

According to officials, the incident is being investigated by Idaho Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a case of mistaken identity. The hunter was hunting black bear over bait in an area where grizzly bears were not expected.

&#8220Unless there's a female with cubs it's not a population, but it means the area may now be occupied,” said Steve Nadeau, large carnivore coordinator for Idaho Fish and Game, in a press release.

Fish and Game officials want to warn hunters that there may be other grizzly bears in the area, and they should be sure of their target before shooting. Under the Endangered Species Act, it's a federal offense to kill a grizzly bear.

Though grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem have been removed from the endangered species list, they still are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in the Selway-Bitterroot and Selkirk areas in Idaho.

The hunter notified Idaho Fish and Game officials of the shooting last Tuesday. The area he hunted is remote, and the hunter carried out the carcass to allow officials to confirm the identity of the bear. According to officials, the area is ideal grizzly bear habitat.

&#8220Over the last six years or so I've been getting quite a few good reports of grizzly bears from Fish Creek, Petty Creek, and the Great Burn area,” said Jamie Jonkel, FWP Region 2 bear manager. &#8220I've had grizzly activity in the Nine Mile drainage and down by the lower Clark Fork. I had one grizzly bear that started in Rock Creek and came over on the Stevensville side. We've got some pretty good activity over the last six or seven years, so it didn't surprise me.”

In addition to a handful of grizzly reports on the east side of the Bitterroot Valley, a grizzly bear also was killed in the Pintlers a couple years ago, Jonkel said.

&#8220They're starting to show up throughout that area,” he said. &#8220It's mostly just large adult males traveling south, checking out new country.”

It's tough to say whether the bear was a lone griz or part of a group, or whether or not the bear was born in the area, Jonkel said.

&#8220It'd be my guess that it's just a male moving south out of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem,” he said. &#8220We're starting to see more activity in that area.”

The NCDE comprises the Missions, Cabinet Wilderness, Rattlesnake Wilderness, Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Scapegoat Wilderness, in addition to a few others. Grizzly bears are abundant in these areas, and also the areas south of the Bitterroot including the Beartooths and Yellowstone National Park. Why, then, aren't more grizzlies living in the Bitterroot?

&#8220Historically there were grizzly populations in the Bitterroots,” Jonkel said. &#8220They got shot out. They were hunted pretty hard in the 20s, 30s and 40s, and probably the majority of the bears were shot out. It's all good country, they just got shot out of there a long time ago.”

Jonkel estimated maybe a few grizzlies lingered in the area or ventured south without getting detected, but as far as estimating a solid number of grizzly bears in the Bitterroot, there's no way of knowing.

&#8220The reports we get from people I keep track of,” he said, &#8220but to actually say it's a grizzly I need a good photograph of a front paw or a photo of the bear. I get a lot of people reporting grizzlies to me, and then when I get the photo it's obvious it's a blonde black bear or a brown black bear.”

However, Jonkel said, &#8220I've talked to plenty of guys that say ‘This is a definite grizzly track, I just didn't take a picture,' and I believe them. There's been some awfully good reports, and it could be this bear's been in that area for three or four years now and has been the one leaving the track and sign.”

Jonkel warned residents that bears are coming out in large numbers in the lower elevations, and to properly store garbage. He also said that orchards are drawing bears in, and that people who aren't using their apples will just have to get used to seeing bears around their property.

Reporter Kristin Knight can be reached at 363-3300 or knight@ravallirepublic.com

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