The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has been working in fits and stops toward an “experimental” reintroduction of grizzly bears in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, may have found a bear to do the job for them.
Late last month, a three to four-year-old grizzly appeared in the Bitterroot Valley. The Fish and Wildlife Service says the bear’s a transient but some conservationist aren’t so sure.
“Transient bear is the term they give it and I’m not really sure what that means because that’s grizzly bear habitat they’re living in,” says Ryan Shaffer, ecosystem defense director for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Whether they are moving around in there or have a den in there it’s still grizzly bear habitat.”
The term “transient bear” is how Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator Chris Servheen described the bear but it’s not official language.
“The word transient was used because he was in one place then another place then he just disappeared,” says Servheen. “It’s kind of mysterious.”
The only way grizzly bears could be introduced as an experimental population in the wilderness is if there isn’t already an established population. Conservation groups hope this bear helps to qualify them as established.
“If there is a natural migration of bears into the bitterroot ecosystem and they establish a population there then reintroduction will never be able to happen under the ‘experimental non-essential population’ portion of the endangered species act,” says Shaffer. But Servheen says that none of the areas the bear has wandered through have been part of the planned reintroduction area and a single beer isn’t indicative of a “population,” says wildlife writer Ben Long.
“You’ve got to have two to tango,” says Long. “And you’ve got to have more than two to make a viable population but I think it illustrates that bears are perfectly capable of getting there [the Bitterroot] on their own. Whether they survive there is up to people.” Representatives from FWP agree.
“It’s symptomatic of the bigger issue and that is that grizzly bear populations are increasing in Western Montana,” says FWP regional supervisor Mack Long. “Bears are now 60, 80 miles outside of the recovery zones on a regular basis.”
It has been decades since a grizzly has been spotted in this area but it’s possible this is the beginning of a trend.
“Bears like to wander,” says Long, author of Montana Bear Stories. “I think it’s a classic example of how grizzly bears tolerate humans more than humans will tolerate grizzly bears and as long as we have a healthy population of bears in the wilderness areas they are going to spill out of wilderness areas and wonder a long, long way.”