Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wildlife biologist Tim Thier has had a distinguished career working with animals and birds in the Western United States, and recently retired from Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
Monday, Dec. 31, was Thier’s last day after a 30-year career. But Thier’s career studying and working with wildlife dates back much further than that.
He first worked in Northwest Montana in 1976 with famed bear biologist Chuck Jonkel. Jonkel, who died nearly three years ago, was a pioneering bear biologist who spawned the careers of many who studied bears and other wildlife. Thier also worked with Chris Servheen of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Servheen was the first grizzly bear recovery coordinator. He retired in April 2016 after a 35-year career.
Thier is happy to retire so he “can get some things done around the house now” but he said he wouldn’t trade his experiences for anything in the world.
“As far as I’m concerned, we are living in the greatest area in the United States,” Thier said. “I’ve been able to work with all different types of wildlife and the public and I’ve enjoyed it greatly.”
Thier was in pursuit of his Bachelor’s degree in the University of Montana’s Resource Conservation Program in the mid 1970s and had secured a job as a wrangler with an outfitter who worked in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
“I’d go to school for one or two quarters, then work to pay for school,” Thier said.
The outfitter didn’t have enough bookings and Thier was the odd man out in the operation. But fortune was on his side when he ran into Rick Mace, a fellow Iowan who was also studying wildlife in Missoula. Mace went on to a 40-year career studying bears before retiring from Fish, Wildlife & Parks in 2015.
“It was in 1976 and Rick had just got a job with Chuck (Jonkel) on the border grizzly project. I got some work study money and joined the project,” Thier said.
Grizzly bears had been placed on the Endangered Species list as a threatened animal and little was known about them.
But that was about to change.
“We’d trap them with foot snares, which could be pretty interesting,” Thier said. “We did a lot of things that I’m glad we survived. We were working in the Cabinets in 1979 and ‘80 and I had caught a yearling griz in a snare at the head of Chippewa Creek. Its mother was there and it was a very scary situation, but we got out of it somehow.”
A few years later, Thier ended up in Colorado after a bowhunter chasing elk killed an attacking grizzly in the San Juan Mountains. Grizzlies were thought to be extinct there since the early 1950s, but after Ed Wiseman’s encounter, the Colorado Division of Wildlife wanted Thier and Mace to see if there were others.
“There were four of us and we looked for evidence, but the digs we found were old and the newer ones were made by black bears,” Thier said.
After a few years working in wildlife and forestry for Plum Creek Timber in the early 1980s, Thier was laid off and he ended up working with Wayne Kasworm, a grizzly biologist who still works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Their trapping efforts established that a breeding pair of grizzlies did exist in the Cabinet Mountains. A 29 year-old female was caught in 1983 and a 28 year-old male was caught a few years later. After a 12 year-old male griz was caught in the Libby Creek area, DNA testing determined the two older grizzlies were its parents.
Thier went to work in the Yaak Mountains to determine the effects of hunting on black bears. He learned that open roads helped create an overharvest of bears, but he also learned something a lot more significant.
“I caught a 400-pound male grizzly in the first foot snare I set. I put a radio telemetry collar on it and after I caught another and went back to Wayne for another collar, he didn’t believe me at first.
“I ended up catching five grizzlies in the Yaak, and that determined there was a resident population of grizzlies there,” Thier said. “That led to us capturing a grizzly in British Columbia and bringing it to the Yaak to help the population.
“It was very controversial, but she ended up having young and grandchildren,” Thier said.
But Thier’s work with the Fish and Wildlife Service became more about spending time with lawyers than working with bears.
“The lawsuits by animal rights groups piled up and a tremendous amount of money was wasted on lawyers,” he said.
When a biologist position with Fish, Wildlife & Parks became available in 1994, Thier was ready to make a change, mostly for the sake of his marriage. He and Lynn Johnson, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, had wed in 1992.
Working at the Region 1 office in Kalispell allowed Thier to work with all types of wildlife, including some of the smallest - least weasel - to the largest - moose, elk and even caribou.
“There hadn’t been evidence of a least weasel here in Montana since 2000, but then one turned up and another. It’s been interesting documenting them,” Thier said.
He said he also was able to tag along with John Squires, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, when he studied lynx.
Thier, 64, said a health scare three years ago when he nearly bled to death while battling non-Hodgkins Lymphoma was a real eye opener, too.
“There are things to do around the property and I’ve only been able to get together with my four brothers at hunting camp in Wisconsin twice, so I’m looking forward to that,” he said.
Thier said he will continue to teach hunter and bowhunter education, which he has done for more than 20 years.
He will also continue to organize and run the Ryan Wagner Memorial Ice Fishing Derby that’s held on Murphy Lake the second Saturday in February.
“I’ve been able to do a lot of neat stuff and I enjoy the people I’ve worked with here. I’ve loved working with Leonard (Howke) at the game check station,” Thier said. “I think they are an extremely dedicated group of people, one of the finest outfits in Montana.”
Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org