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Biologists eye Whitefish grizzly for transplant

| August 31, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

State biologists want to capture a female grizzly bear from the Whitefish Range for release in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness to help bolster the grizzly population there.

Trapping efforts are under way on the north fork of the Flathead River. It's a cooperative project between the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wayne Kasworm of the federal agency said the ideal bear is 3 to 5 years old, with no cubs and no history of conflict with people.

"We may be bringing in several bears in the coming years," he said.

Kasworm and other Montana biologists consider the Cabinet grizzly population the state's most threatened. Fifteen or fewer grizzlies live there now, Kasworm said, although he believes there's habitat to support many more.

"Grizzlies eat pretty much what black bears do, and the Cabinets have a healthy black bear population," Kasworm said. "The Cabinets can support more bears."

Jim Williams, wildlife manager for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Kalispell, said increasing grizzly populations in the Cabinet and Yaak "is our top priority."

The Yaak grizzly numbers also are lower than they should be due in part to human-caused mortality and human encroachment that creates islands of habitat where corridors once existed, biologists say.

Members of the Yaak Valley Forest Council have encouraged preserving wildlife travel corridors during discussions on the Kootenai National Forest management plan revision.

Kasworm said he is not aware of any grizzly deaths in the Cabinets or Yaak from 2003 to the present. However, many bears were lost from 1999 to 2002.

Fish and Wildlife Service figures show 14 known grizzly deaths during that period, including natural causes and human-caused deaths.

"Most of it is in the Yaak," Kasworm said. "At least two bears ended up with a bullet in them, lying along the road."

Those two bears were found during hunting season, he said, so it's unknown whether they were shot by someone mistaking them for black bears or whether they were killed intentionally by someone opposing grizzly re-introduction.

Grizzlies in the Lower 48 have been a federally protected threatened species for the past 30 years under the Endangered Species Act. Although an estimated 500 grizzlies live in and near Glacier National Park, other parts of the northern Rocky Mountains have less viable populations.

Trapping grizzlies elsewhere and releasing them in the Cabinets won't cause more road closures, Kasworm emphasized. That's a U.S. Forest Service issue.

"There's already bear management going on in the Cabinets and we do not see this changing any of that," Kasworm said.

This isn't the first time bears have been trapped to increase grizzly numbers in the Cabinets. Kasworm said four bears were brought into the wilderness between 1990 and 1994.

Hair snags indicate at least one of those bears still roams the Cabinets, although Kasworm said it's uncertain if she has had cubs. One of the four relocated bears was found dead, and the fate of the other two isn't known.