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Taking the high road

The Gravelly Range Road edges toward volcanic Black Butte, which at 10,546 feet is the highest peak in the Gravelly Range southwest of Ennis.

A grizzly bear is suspected of killing four calves on the east face of the Gravelly Range late last month, and the bear has not been identified or found, leading to the closure of Short Creek and Lazy Man roads in the upper Ruby River drainage.

The incident began the evening of June 27 when a camper heard commotion that turned out to be a grizzly bear killing a calf, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks grizzly bear specialist Kevin Frey.

The next day, as cowboys prepared to move the carcass in order to reduce the likelihood of scavengers endangering people travelling on a nearby road, the cowboys reportedly saw two grizzlies — one collared and the other not — appear on the edge of nearby timber, Frey says.

Later on June 28, cowboys found another dead calf in the area, though it seemed to be “an older kill,” according to Frey. And that night, a single cowboy heading up an area gulch reportedly saw a bear chasing cattle, fired his gun, and hit the bear.  

According to Frey, the cowboy “claimed he got it (the grizzly) pretty good.” But it wasn’t until the next day — June 29 — that officials from the Forest Service and FWP got wind of the dead calves and the shot grizzly. When they did, they began to search for signs of a wounded or killed bear in the area. 

That search came up empty, however.

“There were no signs of blood or otherwise,” Frey said.

As officials hunted for the bear, two more dead calves were discovered on June 30, one that seemed recently killed and another that seemed older.

Since the calves’ deaths and the cowboys’ bear encounters over that four-day period, officials from FWP, the Forest Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services’ Wildlife Services division have been investigating the incident and attempting to locate the bear. But doing so has proven difficult.

Due to the cowboys’ claim that one of the bears they saw was collared, officials have checked whether either of the two collared bears in the area were injured or killed. Despite flying over three times to get a signal on the collars, Frey says the pulse rates from the collars of those two bears — which were initially captured and collared for research purposes and “had not been in management conflict situations before” — do not indicate either of them have been shot.

That has left officials uncertain about whether there’s a conflict-prone grizzly in the area and, if so, whether it's dead, injured, or alive.

Frey says the cowboy “possibly, probably hit this bear,” leaving a murky situation in the upper Ruby: “Did he kill this bear? We just don’t know. Time will tell.”

In the meantime, two area roads are closed, and officials “continue to look around,” Frey says.

According to Frey, grizzly bear populations in the Gravelly Range are on the rise — and so are incidences of depredation.

That squares with what John Steuber, state director of Wildlife Services, has seen not only in this area but throughout Montana.

“We’ve got bears killing calves all over the state,” Steuber says.  “It’s not uncommon.”

Wildlife Services handles all predation investigations in Montana, and Steuber says that during the last federal fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2016, and ended Sept. 30, 2017, the agency conducted 98 investigations of grizzlies preying on livestock. Those investigations involved the killing of 29 adult cattle, 69 calves, seven sheep, five lambs, five goats, 13 chickens, and six pigs.

And Steuber says grizzly predation is “getting more and more common.”  

And according to Jay Bodner, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, the depredation that's formally investigated represents just the tip of the iceberg, as predators take larger numbers of livestock without ranchers noticing until it’s too late.  

“In most cases, what we do see — and it doesn’t matter if it’s wolves or grizzlies — it’s really difficult to find or see every cow or calf out there every day,” Bodner says. “And in many cases, you would just come in five calves short or 10 calves short. ... So that producer is just out that kind of money. And that does turn into significant costs when you lose those kinds of animals.”

While the state’s Livestock Loss Board does provide compensation to producers who lose livestock to predators, Bodner says those payments are only granted when predation is confirmed.  

“So even though we do have a compensation program and it is helpful, we know there’s a lot more out there than they get reimbursed for,” Bodner says. 

As for the calves killed last month in the Gravelly Range, Frey says “there’s enough evidence on the carcasses to determine it was typical of a grizzly bear attack.” That means the owner of the calves should be compensated for their loss.

As for finding the bear, Frey says it may have been “too many days” since the dead calves were discovered to accurately determine who killed them.

“At this point, if you capture one, you’re not really sure if that bear’s guilty or not,” Frey says.

If guilt is determined, however, FWP would decide whether to leave the bear alone, collar it, move it, or euthanize it.

Forest Service officials in Ennis say they will probably reopen Short Creek and Lazy Man roads this weekend despite the uncertainty about the bear's whereabouts.

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