Counting Bears

By Beacon Staff

Biologists who have spent years counting grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem say the species is on the road to recovery. With the public comment period on a post-delisting bear management strategy having drawn to a close Aug. 1, Endangered Species Act protections could be removed as early as next year.

At the North Fork Preservation Association’s annual meeting last month, attendees heard a presentation from Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Rick Mace. The presentation gave a 30-year history of grizzly bear conservation in western Montana.

Mace traced the history of research and management from the 1970s to the present, and talked about the science of counting bears and population trends of bears in the NCDE.

He also gave local examples of radio-collared bears in the North Fork of the Flathead River, their movement patterns and abundance.

John Frederick, president of the North Fork Preservation Association, which is dedicated to preserving the integrity of the area, said he was struck by the population estimate of grizzly bears in the watershed – roughly 140 bears.

“They’re at carrying capacity in the North Fork,” he said. “If we get many more they’ll be bumping into one another.”

Approximately 1,000 grizzlies live in the NCDE, a sprawling area in Northwest Montana that spans the northern border with Canada. According to Mace’s figures, the population is growing at an estimated 3 percent annually.

Although grizzlies have been listed as a threatened species since 1975, they’ve since bounced back significantly due to efforts by the state and federal governments as well as Montana Indian tribes that helped spearhead recovery, coordinate research efforts and improve habitat management.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft plan that provides a framework for managing bears if Endangered Species Act protections are lifted.

In addition to outlining strategies for coexistence between bears and humans, including residents of ranching communities whose lives often conflict with predators, the plan also emphasizes that male grizzlies can move between the NCDE and adjacent ecosystems.

The population estimates used to inform the management strategy came from Kate Kendall, a retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist based in Glacier National Park best known for her pioneering work in grizzly bear DNA research, which has led population studies in Northwest Montana.

Kendall said she and her team were meticulous in their research, particularly because they were hyper-aware of the implications the study would have on the future of grizzly bear management.

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