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Grizzly Cub Rescue Spotlights Complex Relations in Bear Country


Over Easter weekend, a story played out in Dupuyer, Montana, when a sow grizzly bear protecting her cubs bit a hiker and had to be euthanized. A couple days later, the manager of the Boone and Crockett Club’s Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch, which is located about 10 miles west of Dupuyer, and his family saw her three cubs outside of town and caught them so that they wouldn’t die from starvation, be killed by a boar bear or freeze in a snowstorm that was already moving in to the area.

Grizzly bears are expanding their range throughout Montana, but particularly on the Rocky Mountain Front where Dupuyer is located. The species is listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and, admittedly, these predators were on their way to extinction by the mid-1900s. When they were first listed under the Endangered Species Act there were fewer than 700 bears living in the lower 48 states.

However, that was turned around through coordinated conservation efforts. A 2004 DNA study estimated that there were over 700 bears within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) which includes Dupuyer, the most in any of the six FWS recovery zones. By 2018, the NCDE population had expanded to over 1,000 bears according to the Interstate Grizzly Bear Commission. In addition, their range has increased by 42 percent during the same timeframe.

This is a conservation success story, but with the growing population, the daily activities of bears are increasingly intersecting with human activities. Ranchers and families living in bear country are faced with both the challenge and the novelty of these charismatic predators that are now living amongst them.

Research on the Ranch

The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch (TRMR) is a working cattle operation located in prime wildlife habitat along Dupuyer Creek on the East Front of the Rocky Mountains. The mission of the ranch is research, education, and demonstration with a major focus on the integration of livestock management with wildlife conservation, which is essential to maintain the economic viability of rural communities that depend on good land stewardship. Habitat and wildlife research is conducted on the TRMR through the University of Montana by Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Conservation Josh Millspaugh and his students.

Because the ranch holds a grazing permit with the U.S. Forest Service and abuts thousands of acres of national forest lands and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, grizzlies that annually move down from the high country onto the TRMR are being seen more frequently as their population continues to expand. This has provided the unique opportunity to study them closely. Graduate students have camera traps and observation stations across the TRMR to observe bear activity and the interaction with the livestock and ranch facilities. In addition, TRMR staff and research students have worked closely with the population monitoring team (Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, FWS, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, the Blackfeet tribe, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes) working in the NCDE.

The three cubs were captured and held until Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks personnel arrived. 

In fact, this is where the connection to the story about the three bear cubs starts. A decade ago, a sow grizzly was captured and collared on the ranch. Researchers tracked her movements and for the next ten years she moved between the TRMR and the town of Dupuyer. She generally kept to herself and stayed out of the way. This April, when she ventured out of her den with her three cubs of the year, it is speculated that a boar grizzly had moved into the area where she’d been living, forcing her and her young cubs into more open country. A Dupuyer resident was out walking in the area, and although he heard activity and tried to leave the area before encountering the bears, the sow—which was likely already extra protective because of the boar grizzly—went after him and bit his leg. The hiker, who was carrying a sidearm for protection, shot and wounded the sow allowing him to get away.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks tracked the sow down and euthanized her but were unable to find her cubs. Two days later, after traveling into town for supplies before the Easter holiday, TRMR ranch manager Mike Briggs and his family spotted the cubs. A winter storm was moving in that night and they were concerned that the cubs would succumb to the elements or be killed by the boar bear. After conferring with the local game warden, the family captured the cubs. They contained them in a large, plastic barrel and drove them back to the TRMR where Mike Madel, the state’s grizzly bear management specialist for that region, met them. The Briggs family provided hay to keep the cubs warm and some milk to feed them and Madel took the cubs to Montana WILD rehabilitation center. The center is now caring for the cubs and looking to find a new home for them in a zoo.

Problem bears

The Briggs family is used to living with bears nearby, however like many other ranches in northern Montana they are also seeing increased challenges. Last October, after an early snowstorm, a grizzly bear stalked their horses that were out to pasture. The bear chased their son’s roping horse into a snowdrift and killed the horse. They also lose cattle but, while ranchers can be compensated for depredated livestock, it can sometimes be difficult to prove that the bear was the predator that actually killed the animal. Many ranchers are making changes to their operations utilizing guard dogs and electric fencing, adding range riders to keep watch over herds, and implementing other techniques that can minimize conflicts between humans and predators. However, these changes can be expensive.

Secretary Bernhardt and TRMR ranch manager Mike Briggs

Ironically, the Briggs’ horse was killed less than a week before Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt was scheduled to come to the TRMR and the surrounding areas to hear about the challenges ranchers are facing with bears. Along with Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte, the Montana State Director of USDA Wildlife Services, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officials, and others, Secretary Bernhardt visited the TRMR and then met with local stakeholders to talk about the increasing conflicts with bears. They also talked about how efforts to remove the bears from the endangered species list have been met with legal challenges.

Shortly after his meeting at the TRMR and with other members of the local community, Bernhardt worked with the USDA’s Wildlife Services to hire two range riders that are now helping to reduce conflicts between bears and livestock along the Front.

Related: Two bear euthanized

Future Management

Efforts like these can make a difference, but the truth of the matter is that grizzly populations are fully recovered, and management of this species needs to go back to state oversight. The Boone and Crockett Club has long supported a conservation model based on the state management of wildlife and regulated hunting as a method to sustain wildlife populations. The Club also believes that the best conservation outcomes for predatory species will be achieved by following a proven and balanced model of wildlife conservation that is supported by active management of ecosystems and science-informed decisions. This includes sustainable, regulated hunting as an acceptable method for predator management, where and when justified. In the Club’s view, the most significant factor influencing the conservation and future of bears and other predatory species will not come from new laws or court decisions, but from obtaining support from those who are most affected by the existence of predators—namely, those who live closest to them.

However, advocates are actively fighting efforts to delist grizzly bears and turn management over to states. The FWS delisted grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem in 2017, and Wyoming and Idaho began to move forward management plans that included regulated hunting programs. But in the fall of 2018, a federal district court restored protections for the bears just days before the hunting seasons were scheduled to start.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks continues to work through a Grizzly Bear Advisory Council, appointed by Montana Governor Steve Bullock, that began meeting last year working to develop collaborative solutions to grizzly bear conflicts while the bears are on the list. In addition, the agency has developed a management plan for bears in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem in preparation for delisting. However, there is only so much that can be done and people living and recreating in bear country need to be even more “bear aware” as populations increase.

Even with the loss of livestock and their son’s favorite horse, the TRM Ranch manager and his family came to the rescue of these three cubs. Ranchers, hunters, conservationists—we all recognize that when animals need help, we will be there. That is what Boone and Crockett Club founder, Theodore Roosevelt, meant by conservation.

TRM Ranch Manager, Mike Briggs (third from left) and his sons riding their horses on the Ranch. 

But we also need to coexist with wildlife in a mutually sustainable manner. Where there is both active management of ecosystems and science-informed population management of grizzly bears in western Montana, conservation is working. Populations in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems have met recovery goals. The Club looks forward to a time when we can celebrate the conservation success of recovering grizzly bears and they are removed from the endangered species list.

MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks: Be Bear Aware

Though it is still early in the spring, people recreating outdoors in Montana need to be prepared to encounter grizzly bears as they emerge from winter hibernation. This time of year, bears are hungry and looking for food, and often sows have cubs close at hand. Also, with bears expanding their population and habitat, they can often be found in prairie settings, well away from the mountains.

  • In Montana, people should be prepared to encounter grizzly bears anywhere in the western half of the state.
  • FWP strongly encourages people to carry bear spray.
  • Travel in groups of people.
  • Make noise to avoid surprising bears.
  • Let people know where you’re recreating.
  • Keep a close eye out for fresh bear sign, including scat, tracks and overturned logs and rocks.