For the first 20 years as a state wildlife biologist along the eastern front of the Beartooth Mountains, Shawn Stewart followed up on every report of a grizzly bear.
“I could not verify a grizzly bear on the Beartooth Face,” he said.
Stewart began working for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks in 1976 – a year after grizzlies were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. At the time, it was estimated about 210 grizzlies occupied the 28,000 square miles of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
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During the 19th century, the big bears had been eliminated from 98% of their historic range in the Lower 48 States. This included the Beartooth Face – deep glacier-carved valleys and tundra-like mountaintops in south-central Montana that stretch from the Wyoming border about 85 miles northwest to Livingston.
Based in the community of Red Lodge, in the foothills of the Beartooths, Stewart’s tenure as a biologist for the past 45 years has spanned a unique arc of the grizzly bear’s recovery, from its listing as a threatened species to its return to a landscape after a 100-year absence.
It wasn’t until May 8, 1997 – 21 years after starting his job – that Stewart finally saw his first grizzly bear west of Red Lodge. The bear, a 3-year-old male, had been shot and killed by a landowner after it attacked a horse.
“I’m not saying it was the first bear ever in the area, but it was the first one I could document, and I spent a lot of time trying,” he said.
Within a week, another subadult was seen traveling in the nearby East Rosebud drainage. Over the course of the next month, grizzly bear tracks were confirmed in the upper West Fork Stillwater River and about 10 miles west of Red Lodge.
After being absent for a century, the big bruins were back along the Beartooth Front and making their presence known.
By 1998 the first grizzly bear killing of a sheep was documented along the Face in the Fishtail area. The 5-year-old male had been captured for a similar offense in Wyoming and was therefore euthanized.
In 2004, a grizzly cub born in the Bad Canyon area, northeast of Nye, was the first confirmation of reproduction.
Three years later, a 2-year-old male became the first bear captured near Red Lodge after it wandered into a subdivision south of town during the Thanksgiving holiday.
Then in 2011 – after 35 years on the job – Stewart saw his first live grizzly bear in the wild. He was flying a survey, high up in the East Rosebud drainage, for bighorn sheep and mountain goats in mid-May when he saw the bear. It was “practically to Granite Peak,” Montana’s highest mountain, he said.
“That was a monumental thing for me,” Stewart said. “I thought, ‘You know, I’ve been doing this for a lot of years, and that’s the first one I’ve ever seen. I wonder how long it will be until I see another one on the Beartooth Face.
“I believe it was within a week I was watching a female and a cub down on Line Creek. So it didn’t take long to see the second one.”
Twenty-four years after Stewart saw his first grizzly bear along the Beartooth Face, the bruins are now a more common sight. He’s seen them while walking his dog near Red Lodge, which has a growing population of about 2,000 people – the largest community along the Front. Residents have photographed bears wandering suburban streets, and livestock depredations by grizzlies occur annually on nearby ranches.
With more bruins in nearby Yellowstone National Park, it was only a matter of time before they explored adjacent wildlands, including the Beartooth Mountains.
“As the Yellowstone ecosystem filled it seemed that bears spilled out of the park to the east first, into some of that Wyoming country and some of that good bear habitat on the east border of Yellowstone, then maybe a little bit more to the southeast,” Stewart said. “They were a little slower to get into the Beartooths, for whatever reason. Part of that is that the Beartooths themselves, those high alpine plateaus, are not really that great a grizzly habitat. There are bears there occasionally, but I’ve often wondered if … that large block of alpine habitat … was somewhat of an impediment to their movement.”
Now on flights to count wildlife for FWP, Stewart sees half-a-dozen grizzlies a year. While hiking he spies their tracks in the mud and their hair caught on barbed wire fences. One Wyoming bear that was captured left its ear tag snagged on a Montana fence.
“You quickly realize that there is really no place in the Beartooths, and I mean this literally, where you have no likelihood of running into a bear,” Stewart said. “At some time, during the course of the year, or course of a couple three years, there are bears in every drainage. There is no place that I can say there are not going to be bears, because we’ve got observations practically every place now.”