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Grizzly bears continue to spread across Montana

by KEILA SZPALLER Daily Montanan
| July 14, 2023 7:00 AM

A grizzly bear has been roaming the Pryor Mountains, state wildlife officials confirmed this week.

Many people have reported seeing grizzly bears in the mountains in southeast Montana in recent years, but the recently identified grizzly is the first confirmed sighting, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Grizzly bears haven’t lived there since the late 1800s, FWP said.

Officials identified the bear from a photograph. In a news release, FWP said they subsequently informed nearby landowners, installed game cameras in the area and are searching for additional signs of grizzlies.

In a phone conversation Wednesday, FWP Region 5’s Chrissy Webb said wildlife biologists don’t know the bear’s sex or age. However, she said wildlife officials are working on collecting hair samples in the area to look at its DNA and trace its roots.

Grizzly bears are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act in all lower 48 states. FWP said Montana counts more than 2,100 grizzly bears.

Webb said it’s much too early to assess what a future grizzly bear population might look like in the Pryors. However, she said the bear’s presence might be tied to its dinner.

“Grizzly bears, like black bears, are omnivores, meaning they eat a wide range of things,” Webb said. “So a lot of times that movement is based on food availability.”

In other grizzly bear news this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it is continuing genetic sampling this summer in another corner of the state, southwest Montana, to document their presence and understand how they have been dispersed.

In a news release, Vanna Boccadori, FWP Butte area wildlife biologist, said the project is part of a plan to better understand grizzly bears in the upper Big Hole Valley and nearby mountain ranges. FWP is one of the partners on the project.

“This project is part of a proactive approach to minimize potential conflicts and allow safe passage of grizzlies throughout southwest Montana to the benefit of both bears and people,” Boccadori said in a statement.

In February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would consider removing grizzly bears from a list of endangered and threatened wildlife in northwest Montana and the Yellowstone National Park area. A yearlong review is underway.

State leaders are working to prepare for the delisting, if it takes place, and for how to possibly manage their recovery in specific areas of Montana, such as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

As for the sighting in the Pryors, FWP sent a news release this week about the discovery, and Webb said the agency mainly wants to remind people who live and hike in the area to practice bear safety tips.

For example, carry bear spray when hiking and don’t store food inside tents.

“There is already a population of black bears in the Pryors, so hopefully folks were already doing some of those bear safety protocols,” Webb said.

Daniel McHugh, bear management specialist with FWP in Region 5, said the home range of a grizzly varies based on its sex, age and surrounding resources, but it can be hundreds of square miles for males.

“The Pryors are excellent bear habitat, so it’s no surprise that they support high numbers of black bears and the occasional grizzly,” McHugh said in an email.