Last month wasn't the best for grizzlies in northwest Montana. Most awoke in March and April, the early onset of spring driving them to shake off their winter naps and search for grub. But within a 10-day period in late May, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks received reports of three separate bears shot dead in the Flathead, and the agency is currently offering a $2,000 reward for tips that lead to a conviction in one of those cases.
The string of deaths started May 16 with a report made to FWP by a Wisconsin black bear hunter who fessed up to mistakenly shooting a grizzly. He appeared in court the following day and pleaded guilty to the killing, resulting in a $235 fine and an order to pay $2,000 in restitution.
Four days after the Wisconsinite's botched hunting excursion, FWP biologists and a special agent with U.S. Fish and Wildlife recovered the carcass of a grizzly near the Middle Fork of the Flathead. Lab work confirmed the bear had been shot, leaving two 15-month-old orphans. The agency has released little information about the third dead bear discovered May 24 at a campground in the Yaak, part of a smaller recovery area home to as few as 50 grizzlies. According to FWP spokesman John Fraley, both cases remain under investigation with nothing new to report.
Last month did bring some small amount of justice for several other dead bears. On May 26, a district court judge sentenced Bigfork resident Dan Wallen to three years probation and ordered him to pay $15,000 after Wallen was found guilty of unlawfully killing three grizzlies exactly one year earlier. According to court records, Wallen shot at the bears with a .22 caliber rifle in May 2014 claiming they'd repeatedly raided his chicken coop. One was subsequently put down by a neighbor due to its injuries. The other two were discovered nearby in the ensuing days, both dead.
Montana has made some significant strides in human-grizzly relations. As the population continues to grow and expand its geographic footprint, a few conflicts are inevitable. But building tolerance only goes so far. The unreported killing of two bears within four days and 200 miles of each other suggests something more troubling: a lack of respect for these bruins. Unfortunately, that's one thing hunter education and bear-aware outreach can't fix.