Casey Fitzsimmons isn’t disturbed by the grizzly sow and cubs that appear occasionally in his ranch’s hayfield, about three miles west of the Canyon Creek store north of Helena.
But the grizzly that killed a newborn calf about 100 yards from his house this spring sure caught his attention.
“The cow had calved about 4 o’clock and I wanted to check to make sure that everything was fine, but the cow was a bit ornery and I was busy, so I didn’t get out there until the next morning,” Fitzsimmons said. “The cow came over to me but kept going back to the brush and I couldn’t see the calf. I went over there and the calf was on its back, dead, and I looked down and saw a big old grizzly track. So I got out of there.
“I went home, got my gun
and went back for the calf. I hunt a lot in Alaska, and when I saw that track I knew exactly what it was.”
As grizzly bears and gray wolves continue to claw their way back from near-extinction, they’re reclaiming their former home ranges, which includes the mountains surrounding Helena.
In three separate instances this summer in the Elkhorn Mountains wolves killed a cow near Boulder and one near McClellan Creek and in the same vicinity injured eight cows. Powell County, just over the Continental Divide, has the dubious distinction of hosting almost one-third of the reported livestock depredations by wolves — 24 out of 75 — reported so far this year. Last fall, wolves were heard howling fairly often near Deep Creek in the southern Big Belts east of Townsend. At least 10 wolves are roaming ranches north of Helena.
“I removed five or six after a couple different instances” of depredations on livestock north of Helena, noted Kraig Glazier , an agent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The last time I took out three and three were left there; I know that because they walked right past me. The pack in the Elkhorns is causing quite a bit of livestock damage there, too.”
This spring, a grizzly was seen in the Little Prickly Pear Creek drainage, one killed Fitzsimmons’ calf and a sow with cubs was spotted near Lyons Creek, according to state and federal biologists. Three unconfirmed grizzly sightings occurred this summer in the Elkhorns near Winston, Tizer Basin and Crystal Creek, and another unconfirmed sighting was up Bear Trap Gulch in the northern Big Belts.
“The report in Bear Trap Gulch seems pretty credible,” said Brent Costain, a Helena National Forest wildlife biologist. “One guy was up there hunting, and he’s from Alaska where he’s seen a lot of brown bears. He said there was no doubt in his mind that it was a grizzly.”
Grizzlies also are known to use both the Big Belt and Continental Divide corridors to travel between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.
“We have the full suite of carnivores on the Continental Divide — Canada lynx, bobcats, wolverines, mountain lions, both black and grizzly bears and wolves — they’re all there,” said Jenny Sika, a Helena-based wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “I can’t speak to their (grizzly and wolf) densities and whether they’re residents or just passing through … but hunters should assume they’re at least trying to move through here and keep that in mind.”
Both grizzlies and wolves are native to Montana, but were killed by early settlers and hunters until their numbers dwindled to the point that they eventually fell under the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Today, an estimated 1,600 bears roam in the Glacier, Bob Marshall and Yellowstone ecosystems, as well as in Northern Idaho; and Montana, Idaho and Wyoming also are home to more than 1,600 wolves.
Wolves were removed from federal protection in Montana and Idaho, and both states now have hunting seasons for them. So far, during Montana’s archery season and backcountry season, hunters have killed 11; the FWP Commission set the quota at 220. About 11,000 licenses have been sold here.
Grizzlies remain listed as a threatened species and are illegal to shoot.
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As their populations climb, wolves and grizzlies are taking up residence in places where they haven’t lived in decades.
“Every female grizzly cub born that makes it to adulthood takes on a portion of the mom’s home range and also creeps south. By age 6 she’s having babies of her own,” said Jamie Jonkel, a Missoula-based FWP wildlife manager. “When the males are sub-adults, they venture south, east, west — anywhere they can see the next set of mountains.
“We’re starting to see more grizzlies in Prickly Pear, Wolf Creek and wolves too. Marysville and Birdseye have had some excellent settings, so I would predict they’ll be more there in the next 10 years.”
While it’s rare for wolves to attack humans, there have been at least 10 bear-human encounters in the past two years in the Northern Rockies.
Five of the encounters involved hikers or campers; the other five involved hunters. All of the incidents were in known grizzly bear habitat, but as the bear’s home base is expanding, Tom Carlsen, an FWP wildlife biologist in Townsend, said that people need to act as though they’re in grizzly and wolf country when they’re in the forests.
“We can live with those animals, we just have to change our behavior a little bit,” Carlsen said. “When hunting, if you get your game, remove the carcass from the gut pile. If you have to leave it overnight, try to get it high up in a tree. Also have it in a place so when you go back you can observe it from a distance to see if there is a bear around.
“Those kind of behaviors are going to have to become the norm for people, and not just when hunting but when camping, even in the summer.”
Sika said wolves are moving around a lot this time of year, as younger ones disperse from packs in search of mates for the breeding season. She notes that even if people hadn’t seen them previously, that doesn’t mean they won’t be in a favorite hunting or hiking area now.
FWP warns that while wolves can act aggressively toward domestic dogs and them at any time of year, that’s especially the situation during the breeding season. Wolves become more aggressive toward one another and compete for breeding opportunities, and in recent years FWP has noticed an increase in wolf-dog encounters during the months of December through February.
In the fall, grizzlies enter a stage called hyperphagia, where they’re ravenous for calories to get them through winter hibernation. They’re more protective than ever of their food supplies, but also can be so focused on eating that they don’t pay attention to their surroundings — which can be trouble for hunters sneaking through the forests in search of big game.
That’s prompted FWP to issue a warning telling hunters to prepare to see grizzly bears in unexpected places this fall. They’re also encouraging people to carry bear spray and know how to use it.
And apparently people are listening.
“Bear spray is always a great seller for us, but I’ve certainly seen an increase this fall over past falls,” said Bart Bratlien at Capital Sports and Western. “I think one reason is that it’s stayed so warm that people are hiking later, but it also may be due to the bear-human encounters. Either way, we sell hundreds of canisters.”