Update: On July 15, the grizzly bear was due west of the Hamilton on the Idaho side in the Big Flat Creek area.
A 3-year-old male grizzly bear that has gone walkabout since leaving the Cabinet Mountains this spring crossed the divide last week to visit the area around Big Creek Lakes about 15 miles west of Stevensville.
No one can say for certain that he’ll settle down in the Bitterroot National Forest.
Equipped with a satellite tracking collar, Grizzly 927 has been on the go since he was first released into the Cabinet Mountains last year. The bear moved into Idaho, where he was captured and returned to Montana in the fall of 2018.
This spring, it headed south. Avoiding humans by traveling high on the ridgetops, it made its way to the northern end of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness on the Idaho side. It kept moving south, including a visit to the Kelly Creek area where a mature grizzly was killed by a black bear hunter in 2007.
Last Friday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Wayne Kasworm reported the bear had crossed the Divide and moved onto the Bitterroot National Forest by about a mile near Big Creek Lakes.
Bitterroot Forest biologist Dave Lockman said that while the distance traveled by the bear is impressive, it’s not unprecedented to see one move that far.
“Male grizzlies do tend to disperse further than females,” Lockman said. “It’s kind of atypical to have a bear travel that far, but it’s something we’ve seen before.”
In 2014, a female grizzly bear that biologists named Ethel wandered through the Florence area before turning back around and heading north to the Mission Valley.
“She was last heard of somewhere north of Flathead, where her transmitter quit,” Lockman said. “She was a little bit different because females don’t usually go quite that far.”
Last October, a young grizzly bear was captured at the Whitetail Golf Course near Stevensville. It was relocated out of the valley.
Lockman said it’s anyone’s guess whether Grizzly 927 will find Montana to his liking.
“He’s already covered quite a lot of territory,” Lockman said. “He’s spent some time in different areas in Idaho. I don’t think there is any reason to think that he will set up camp and live in Big Creek. I think it’s more likely that he will continue to explore.”
Lockman said there was a 1990s environmental impact statement that proposed introducing grizzlies into the Bitterroot Grizzly Recovery Zone as a “non-essential experimental population.”
“Had that happened, it would have given managers more control, but that effort, even though it was approved, was defunded and never occurred,” Lockman said. “It took a little bit longer, but they are here now.”
Having a grizzly bear in the Bitterroot Mountains shouldn’t cause anyone to change how they use the area, he said. There are no official food storage orders on the Bitterroot National Forest other than in the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness.
“I would encourage people to use bear-safe techniques to keep black bears away,” Lockman said. “While people might get a little more emotionally wound up because it’s a grizzly, there are a lot more people killed and injured every year by black bears than grizzlies. They can be a problem, just like a grizzly, if you don’t keep your camp clean or make lots of noise while you’re out in the woods.
“I think it’s kind of exciting to see one show up in the recovery zone where they are supposed to be,” he said. “The Bitterroot is the only one out of six recovery zones that is yet to be occupied.”