Grizzly moves into Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

This grizzly bear, captured in a trail-camera photo in the Kelly Creek drainage in June, has moved out of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. Game officials report he is now in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness south of U.S. Highway 12.

North central Idaho’s wandering grizzly bear is continuing his southward journey.

The 3-year-old male wearing a satellite tracking collar has moved south of U.S. Highway 12 and is now in the upper end of Storm Creek just inside the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area, according to Wayne Kasworm of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The bear’s last reported location before moving south was in the Cayuse Creek drainage. Before that, he spent time in the Kelly Creek area.

The wandering bear was released into the Cabinet Mountains of Montana last year and quickly crossed the Clark Fork River into Idaho. He was later captured by wildlife biologists after visiting a black bear baiting site in the early fall of 2018 and moved back to Montana.

But upon release, the bear again headed south into Idaho. He eventually returned to Montana and the Cabinet Mountains to den for the winter. This spring, when he emerged from hibernation, the bear started moving south.

He eventually crossed into the Clearwater Region by climbing from the St. Joe River drainage through the Mallard Larkin Pioneer Area and visited a bear baiting station in the Bungalow area of the North Fork of the Clearwater River basin. His image was captured by a trail camera at the bait site there.

Idaho Fish and Game officials then warned black bear hunters in the area to use extra caution when identifying potential targets. Grizzly bears are protected by the Endangered Species Act and can’t be taken by hunters. Idaho’s black bear hunting season has since closed.

In early June, before the bear was widely known to be in north central Idaho, three conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, arguing bear baiting should not be allowed in portions of Idaho and Wyoming where grizzly bears are or maybe present.

The Selway Bitterroot Wilderness area is within the Bitterroot grizzly bear recovery area. The great bears have been absent from the area for many decades but were once abundant. According to a post on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, members of the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered several grizzly bears during their traverses of the Bitterroots and killed seven of the bears while there. Early 1900s trappers and hunters used to kill 25 to 40 grizzly bears per year in the Bitterroot Mountains.

Until recent times, the last observed grizzly in the Bitterroots was documented in 1932, but grizzly tracks were observed in 1946. A grizzly was shot and killed at a black bear bait site by a hunter in the upper reaches of Kelly Creek in 2007.

According to a report on the suitability of grizzly bear habitat in the Bitterroots, biologists believe the remote mountains and its many wild berries, forbs and grasses, along with deer and elk herds, could support as many as 300 of the bears. Grizzlies in the area once fed on salmon and whitebark pine nuts, but the abundance of the fish and trees have since declined. Even so, the area is considered the best spot in the lower 48 states for grizzly bear recovery not only for the available food sources, but also because of its large expanse, remoteness and three federally protected wilderness areas there.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a federal plan endorsed by a wide range of stakeholders to release grizzlies in the Bitterroots of north central Idaho and western Montana. That plan was eventually scuttled by the George W. Bush administration because of political pressure. But the area remains identified as suitable habitat and a place where the bears are likely to one day re-colonize if their numbers continue to grow. Wildlife officials are unaware of any other grizzlies there.

Clay Hickey, regional wildlife manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said as the grizzly has moved south, he has tended to avoid areas where people are likely to be and instead chose to travel high on ridges

“Most of the places he has appeared to have gone have been out of the way,” he said. “It’s all tough country. If you were trying to get from point A to B, it’s not how you would choose to go.”

Nonetheless, Hickey said the grizzly’s presence as well as the abundant population of black bears in north central Idaho is a good reminder for people to keep clean camps and practice “bear aware” tactics when recreating. The agency recommends people never store food or scented products like tooth paste or sunscreen in tents. Instead, people are advised to store food in their vehicles when car camping. When horse riding or backpacking, the agency recommends people hang their food at least 10 feet off the ground and 5 feet from tree trunks and at least 100 yards from campsites. Dishes and cooking utensils should be cleaned promptly after use and away from campsites.

“Most of these places he has been are some of the more dense black bear habit in our region and people should always be bear smart and clean campsites and those kinds of things,” Hickey said. “We know we have one collared grizzly bear out there, but we have hundreds of black bears in all of those areas.”

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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