STEVENSVILLE — A young male grizzly bear was a captured and relocated from the Whitetail Golf Course north of Stevensville Saturday.
The golf course’s pro, Jason Lehtola, said the first indication that something was amiss at Whitetail came after they saw a broken flag stick on one of the greens. The next morning they found two more snapped off at their base.
“We thought it was probably a vandal at first,” Lehtola said. “And then we saw some tracks in a bunker and some scat piles. I couldn’t tell that it was a grizzly, though, at that point.”
The decision that something needed to be done about the flagpole snapper came last Wednesday when they found another flag stick broken on the seventh green — and this time, the bear had dug a large hole in the manicured grass.
A biologist would later say the bear was after worms.
“I figured that was enough,” Lehtola said. “We called Fish and Game on Wednesday. They brought out a trap Thursday.”
There had been a lot of golfers on the course over the past few weeks, but none reported seeing a bear lurking about. The course set up a trail camera, but it never did get a photograph of the bruin.
Lehtola arrived early Saturday morning to open up the course. He was walking into the shop when he heard an odd noise coming from the direction of the trap that sat about 100 yards from the clubhouse’s front door between the seventh green and eighth tee.
“I could tell we had something in the trap,” Lehtola said. “I started walking over there to take a look. I got about 30 yards away, when it must have smelled me. It was facing the other way in the trap and then all of a sudden it turned. It hit the end of the cage and gave me a growl.
“I turned around and went back and hopped in my car,” he said. “I pulled around the back side where there was a bigger screen.”
At that point, Lehtola could actually get a good look.
“I knew right away that it was a grizzly,” he said. “Its claws were really big. Its head was massive. It was standing in there and I could see the hump on its back.”
When Lehtola called the local warden to report what he’d seen, he said Justin Singleterry wasn’t so sure.
“I told him, ‘You’re not going to believe this. I think it’s a griz,’” Lehtola said. “He just kind of laughed at me and said he hears that all the time.”
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Lehtola said the warden changed his mind right away after the bear hit the side of the culvert trap when he arrived to take a look.
“It was pretty scary,” Lehtola said. “I’m feeling pretty lucky we didn’t have anyone hurt. We’ve had tons of people out golfing. … I know that it scared the hell out of me when it smacked up against the cage. It’s not something that I want to run into the wild.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Specialist Jamie Jonkel said the 249-pound bear was probably about 2½ years old. It was released in the lower Blackfoot, east of the Rattlesnake Wilderness.
This isn’t the first time that grizzly bear has found its way to the valley floor in the Bitterroot Valley.
In 2003, an unmarked grizzly bear came over the Sapphire Mountains from the Rock Creek area.
Jonkel remembers following its tracks down a cow trail to a road near Sunset Bench northeast of Stevensville and finally to the place where he saw its dusty tracks cross the pavement on the Eastside Highway.
It stayed down in the river bottom for a couple of weeks. Jonkel received several reports of sightings of the bear in the Stevensville area before it trekked back over the mountains to Rock Creek.
Three years ago, the famous traveling grizzly bear called Ethyl tried to cross the valley just downstream of Florence as part of its 2,800-mile walkabout.
“She got hung up there,” he said. “There were too many houses so she backtracked.”
Jonkel said it’s not uncommon for bears to head to the river bottoms this time of year.
“Most of our black bears in the Bitterroot come down off the foothills in the fall to follow the drainages down to the river,” he said. “They want to try to spend time in the river bottoms where the lushest habitat is located.
“Sadly, along the way they have to go through 300 to 400 backyards with all their apple trees, garbage and bird feeders,” Jonkel said.
The bear biologist said the message hasn’t really spread far and wide in the Bitterroot that landowner can do more to keep bears at bay.
“Once an area get urbanized and fractured by a lot of development, it’s just hard to get organized,” he said. “We’ve had some good luck around Lolo Creek and Missoula in getting that message out. We could use a group to spread the word in the Bitterroot about being bear aware.”