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Grizzly bears take to Montana's plains

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Mike Madel hasn't stopped moving since the grizzlies woke up. They're getting onto porches and into bird seed and cattle feed. The bears have been pushing east out of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem for years. But Madel, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' bear management specialist in Choteau, hasn't seen this many human-griz conflicts in more than two decades. "We're repeating the types of conflicts we experienced in the mid '80s," he says. "We had lots of sheep depredation and beehive damage early on. Now, it's porches, human food and livestock food."

Madel thinks the bears are showing up and getting in trouble at least in part due to a mild winter with a low level of livestock deaths along the Rocky Mountain Front. Without those early carcasses to feed on, he says, dispersing sub-adult males began traveling east much earlier. This spring, Madel captured a male preying on calves on the east side of the Continental Divide. The bear had become habituated to the food source; only after the agency euthanized it did they realize the bear had made his way over all the way from the Blackfoot River.

Even sows have proven unusually problematic this year. Last month, a four-year-old female griz caused the deaths of roughly 70 sheep on three Great Falls area ranches in a two-week span. FWP trapped the female, who was in poor shape, along with her cub and relocated the two to northwestern Montana in accordance with interagency grizzly management guidelines.

The sow was an extreme case, Madel says. She was one of the youngest sows with a cub on Montana record, and she was likely stressed as a result.

Females have been establishing home ranges beyond the mountains for years, infringing on agricultural land and teaching their offspring how to live outside state and federally owned tracts. In fact, grizzlies are spending much more time on the high plains these days as they begin to repopulate their native habitat. It's this development that has FWP and other agencies switching focus to areas outside the grizzlies' recovery zone, and working to strengthen the level of acceptance for bears they've been fostering along the Front for decades.

"The pulse this year is something we could see year after year after year now," Madel says. "And we may have to become more creative about how we handle grizzlies on private property."

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