The grizzly bear that turned up near Elk Park before it was shot and killed may have come as a surprise to Butte area residents.
But wildlife officials say it shouldn't be.
"I don't think that we can expect that there are no grizzlies anywhere anymore," said Kevin Frey, southwestern bear management specialist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Bozeman. "There are a lot more bears traveling around than we are aware of."
Federal and state game wardens are investigating the killing, which occurred Friday west of Interstate 15 near Elk Park, north of Butte. The bear, a 5- to
7-year-old male, was shot and killed on
But Frey said the bear is just one indication that grizzlies from the Yellowstone National Park and northern Continental Divide ecosystems
continue to expand their range. And it's not the first bear to show up in areas that haven't had the large omnivores in decades.
In 2005, a young male grizzly bear was found killed in Cabbage Gulch on the Mount Haggin game range near Anaconda. The bear had been shot with an arrow and the poaching has never been solved.
Jamie Jonkel, bear management specialist for FWP's Region 2 in Western Montana, said other grizzlies have been discovered in new areas in recent years.
Federal trappers dealing with depredation problems on livestock caught a young male grizzly in the foothills south of Drummond just two years ago. Jonkel said trappers suspected it was a black bear and were surprised and believe the bear was traveling with another grizzly.
He said he knows of at least one male grizzly living in the John Long Mountains east of Rock Creek. And just five weeks ago, a grizzly showed up just outside of Avon.
Western Montana isn't the only place where grizzlies are moving into new territory. This spring a pair of young bears has been spotted east of Great Falls close to the Missouri River near Fort Benton. And in Wyoming, grizzlies have moved east into valley bottoms near Cody and Powell.
Jonkel said none of these bears should come as a surprise as bears push out from their core habitats.
"We're starting to get bears moving north from Yellowstone and south from the Bob Marshall wilderness," he said. "They're slowly expanding into their historic ranges."
Butte sits right at the junction between those two ecosystems. Bears can easily come out of the Lincoln area and continue south, and from the Yellowstone country the Gravelly and Tobacco Roots mountains provide good routes to travel north.
June, which is breeding season for bears, is rife for bears to make long forays as they seek mating partners. Young males that get pushed out of territory that older bears have claimed are especially prone to wander, Frey said.
He said grizzlies can cover a lot of ground in a short time.
"We've had bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem that have gone from Jackson, Wyo., up to the Gravellies and back in the course of a summer," Frey said. "Fifty miles is not a reach for bears to travel."
Younger bears will occupy the range of their mothers. But Frey said over time they'll wander a little farther before having their own cubs and the cycle continues as the bears continue to colonize areas not occupied.
Jonkel said it's important that people living in bear habitat take precautions to keep bears from getting into food attractants. Those include household garbage, horse and dog feed and bird feeders.
"If you have attractants out and you have skunks and coons getting into it, it's just a matter of time before you have black bears," he said. "And if you get black bears eventually you're going to have grizzlies."
- Reporter Nick Gevock may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org