By the time the old matriarch griz poked through the scrub-covered culvert and onto U.S. Highway 93 south of the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, she’d been a mother nine times over and a grandmother to at least 11 cubs, including a young male captured in 2018 digging holes on the Whitetail Golf Course near Stevensville, providing further evidence that grizzlies were expanding their range into the Bitterroot Valley.
The bruin’s genetic contributions helped foster a grizzly bear population that, in her 25 years, she ushered through a period of growing pains characterized by intense recovery efforts under the federal Endangered Species Act. In 2004, biologists estimated there were 765 grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), a sprawling region situated in Northwest Montana, which includes Glacier National Park, portions of the Flathead and Blackfeet Indian reservations, parts of five national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, as well as state and private lands. The area covers about 21,300 square miles.
Today, the population segment is home to about 1,000 bears, and teeters on the cusp of recovery as management agencies and conservation groups litigate the species’ federal recovery status.
But even for all her genetic contributions, her endowment to science was perhaps more generous as researchers dubbed the bear “Griz 40,” first capturing her as a yearling in the Swan Valley and fitting her with a radio collar for tracking. DNA and other samples collected from the bear determined she was born in 1995, and as biologists tracked her movements through the Swan Valley from 2001 to 2005, and again in 2015 and 2016, she became one of the first trend monitoring bears for the NCDE, helping to establish population growth estimates that continue to inform the species’ recovery today.
During all that monitoring, Griz 40 was never classified as a conflict bear, and remained exclusively in the Swan Valley, never venturing west over the jagged edge of the adjacent Mission Mountains and onto the stretch of highway corridor, at least never while wearing a collar.
Until one day she did, ambling across the highway at 2 a.m. on Sept. 4 when an ambulance transporting a patient for emergency medical services collided with the great bear, rendering the ambulance inoperable and Griz 40 “unsalvageable,” according to biologists.
The bear’s death in a motor vehicle collision underscores an inherent hazard to grizzly populations on the human-wildlife interface.
For decades, researchers have predicted that an uptick in traffic volume on western Montana’s busy highway corridors will present increasing challenges for the region’s grizzly bears, which frequently cross the roadways as they move between critical habitats.
The raw data is alarming to biologists, but in the context of a grizzly bear population expanding into an increasingly human-dominated landscape, it’s not all that surprising. In 2018, for example, more than 50 grizzly bears were removed from the NCDE population, 17 of which were classified as removals due to “vehicle collisions.” Thirteen of those bears were killed in collisions, while four are orphaned cubs that have been or will be rehomed.
The year’s total stands out as the most on record for the NCDE.
But bears frequenting some stretches of western Montana roadway were harder hit than others, particularly on the segment of U.S. Highway 93 that runs through the Flathead Indian Reservation. To put the mortalities in context, between 1998 and 2017, a total of nine bears were killed on the 14-mile stretch of Highway 93 between Ronan and St. Ignatius; in 2018 alone, eight bears were killed in vehicle collisions on this same section of roadway.
Biologists with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal (CSKT) Wildlife Management Program said a bear’s death often means the removal of an entire family unit from the population, as orphaned cubs may be too young to survive alone and successfully integrate into the population.
“An orphaned bear is still considered a removal from the population,” Stacy Courville, a tribal bear biologist with CSKT, said.
“That was a big year for highway mortalities,” Courville said of 2018. “I don’t think we’ve ever hit that many bears. I hope it’s not the new normal, that it’s just an outlier statistic.”
In comparison to the other highways in the NCDE — U.S. Highway 2, U.S. Highway 89, Montana Highway 200 and Montana Highway 83 — Highway 93 records the most deaths per mile.
Looking at a map of highway mortalities in the NCDE, Courville notes that grizzly mortalities are fairly spread out across the NCDE “except for on the reservation.”
“I don’t know what we can do on Highway 93,” he said.
In fact, much has already been done on 93 to mitigate the risk of traffic on grizzly bears, to varying degrees of success.
In conjunction with the Montana Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, CSKT has worked to construct safe passage for wildlife, including 41 crossings that include the “Animals’ Trail,” a 197-feet wide vegetated bridge that spans the bustling highway, which are located in areas known to be popular for wildlife crossings, and which have high rates of mortality.
According to Courville, Griz 40’s death didn’t come amid a spate of highway deaths this summer, and the past two summers have seen far fewer fatalities than in 2018. Still, “losing bears, especially females to the population is detrimental, it isn’t good for the overall health and future of the population.”
As Griz 40 demonstrates, females are important to maintaining population levels by producing offspring, and CSKT is continuing to work with the Montana Department of Transportation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to come up with highway improvements that benefit grizzlies in the Ninepipe area.
The last litter biologists know belonged to Griz 40 was born when she was 21 years old, in 2016, when she reared three cubs. One of the cubs was captured in 2018 by researchers with the CSKT Wildlife Management Program, who named the sub-adult bear “Kiki” and recruited her for a monitoring program conducted by a University of Montana graduate student, Kari Eneas, who now works as a tribal wildlife biologist.
Her project was aimed at evaluating how grizzly bears use habitat in the Mission Valley in relation to small livestock, as well as the effectiveness of electric fence at deterring grizzly bear conflicts — an assessment that can help mitigate future problems with bears.
According to CSKT Wildlife Biologist Whisper Camel-Means, understanding grizzly migration patterns is complicated, and mitigating the impacts of human infrastructure to the species’ natural movements is a work in progress.
“This is sad to see them killed and a complicated issue to fix,” she said. “Grizzly bears are smart and move around where they want to.”