Last summer, wildlife biologists in Drummond trapped a sweet-toothed grizzly after the bear chomped on beehives, and in recent years grizzlies have been spotted near Anaconda, Stevensville, the Ninemile, Clinton, Ovando and Idaho's Silver Valley. Plot these sightings on a map and one thing is clear: the massive animals are bearing down on Missoula.
Biologically, these wandering bears represent a reassuring trend: the great bears, under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, are reclaiming historic habitat where they haven't been spotted for a half-century. According to Wildlife Management Specialist Jamie Jonkel with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), the expansion of their range will occur slowly and unpredictably, with lone males randomly exploring new country as they seek unoccupied turf.
"More matriarch females are surviving," Jonkel says. "And those females are producing young who take on a portion of their mother's home range and also expand outward a little further."
Jonkel says it's only a matter of time before they start poking around Missoula. "We've had grizzlies in the Rattlesnake," he says. "Thank goodness none of them have figured out what garbage is."
To ensure it stays that way, FWP—and groups like the Defenders of Wildlife and the Blackfoot Challenge—are working to guarantee that humans in the grizzlies' path do their best to limit attractants like food and trash.
"We like to remind people that any issues that come up with sanitation related to black bears would of course be relevant to grizzly bears as well," says FWP wildlife biologist Ray Vinkey. "Treat any bear habitat in western Montana as if there is a potential for an encounter with a grizzly."
In Glacier National Park, where grizzlies abound, rangers cite visitors for leaving even unused water bottles unattended. Here in Missoula, city managers are considering an ordinance requiring bear-proof garbage containers on the city's urban fringe, but Jonkel doesn't see strict, Glacier-style regulations coming to Missoula any time soon. He does acknowledge that several agencies, including FWP, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and the Bureau of Land Management are "thinking of enacting food orders."
"Glacier is extreme," Jonkel says, "but they're dealing with gobs of people. We'll never get to that level in the forest, but down the road as western Montana turns into a Seattle, things could change."