Statewide Black Bear Study Expands to Northwest Montana

Entering its second year, the new research project by FWP aims to gain a better understanding of Montana’s black bear population, density, habitat, as well as the effects of hunting

By Tristan Scott
A black bear stands up in a berry patch near St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park on Sept. 13, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In 2011, bear biologists in Montana published the findings of a first-of-its-kind research project to estimate the state’s black bear population and determine the effects hunting was having on the species. The decade-long study by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) researchers Rick Mace and Tonya Chilton-Randandt began in 2001 with live captures and cutting-edge DNA-based sampling in the Swan Valley, but it eventually expanded to encompass 11 areas spanning 8,000 square miles across central and western Montana.

At the time, the project helped quell unrest over the state’s black bear management plan.

In the early 1990s, controversy over the recreational harvest of black bears by the public had peaked. Public harvest of grizzly bears in Montana had recently been halted by a federal court that determined the state of Montana did not have adequate data to indicate that the recreational harvest was not impacting grizzly populations, and public stakeholders argued the same was true for black bears. At the same time, the agency recognized that black bear harvest was (and is) an important part of the lives of many Montanans. As a result of this controversy, FWP initiated a public scoping and Environmental Impact Assessment process to update the black bear management program.

By extrapolating regional bear density data from nearly a dozen geographic zones across the state, the study arrived at a mean population estimate of 13,307 black bears and found that, on average, 1,030 black bears were harvested in Montana annually between 1987 and 2006. Nearly half of those bears (46%) were harvested in FWP’s Region 1 encompassing northwest Montana.

Introduced when Montana’s annual black bear harvest averaged fourth in the nation behind Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, the project produced some landmark findings and was cheered for its use of advanced technology.

“This project is an outstanding example of how technology and scientific rigor can be used to inform wildlife management and conservation programs, such that decisions regarding the conservation of wildlife are adequately informed and reliable,” Jim Williams, who at the time worked as FWP’s Region 1 wildlife program manager, wrote in the report’s executive summary, “Black Bear Harvest Research and Management in Montana.”

“The results of this project are already being applied to black bear management and conservation in Montana, and this report will help to form the basis of the black bear management program in Montana for years to come,” according to Williams.

But it was never meant to be the final word. In the 13 years since FWP published the report, and in the 23 years since the agency launched the project, scientific technology and methodology has evolved. With those new methods in mind, biologists have launched a new initiative to model an even more detailed population estimate of black bears in Montana, using harvest data, monitoring and genetic sampling to assess how bears are using the habitat, and whether their behaviors have changed as a result of hunting.

“As you might imagine, scientific methods have come a long way in 10 years, so we’re revisiting a familiar question using different methodologies,” Colby Anton, FWP’s black bear monitoring biologist, said Monday after the agency announced the second season of its black bear monitoring program. “Our overall objectives are to estimate the density and abundance of black bears at a statewide level, but also at a local level, in the individual bear management units. The impetus for this study is really to just better understand how harvest management and Montana’s harvest of black bears impacts black bear populations. It will ultimately help FWP gain an accurate and timely understanding of the black bear populations, accounting for regional differences, to better inform management decisions.”

The biggest difference setting this season’s field work apart from last year’s is its focus on northwest Montana’s Region 1 as opposed to the program’s inaugural season, which saw data collection and bear tracking primarily in Region 2, around the Blackfoot, Clearwater, Missoula, and Bitterroot valleys. Beginning next month, FWP staff will collect hair samples by setting up barbed-wire hair corrals west of Kalispell. In addition, about 20 bears will be captured and collared to collect the GPS data on in western and central Montana.

“We have 90 sites that we hope to establish this year, which are entirely centered in [Hunting District] 103,” Anton said, describing the study’s focus area as beginning near Ashley Lake and stretching west to the eastern edge of the Fisher River Valley and north to the district’s northern boundary.

The barbed-wire hair corral sites will be baited with a scent lure concocted out of fermented blood and fish guts, Anton said, and will see heightened use by black bears and grizzly bears alike. Hair corral sites will be surrounded by bright orange warning signs to prevent safety issues and all sites will be removed before the fall archery season begins. Trapping locations for GPS collaring will be marked by closure signs and members of the public are required to stay out of these areas due to increased safety risks.

“We’ll put up bright orange signs at the corrals that are posted with my name and contact information on them, and we do advise that members of the public not enter these,” Anton said, adding that researchers won’t place the lures until after spring black bear season is over.

A map depicting Montana’s black bear monitoring ecoregions. Courtesy Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

The study will provide estimates on bear abundance and distribution and provide insights on how they use available habitats. Biologists will also better assess how hunter harvest and habitat quality and availability are impacting black bear populations. Managers will be able to make more informed season adjustments and recommendations based on monitoring results. The study will also provide insights on survival rates and causes of mortality.

While genetic sampling will occur in northwest Montana, GPS collaring efforts will be replicated not only in northwest Montana but several other areas around the state including the Ninemile Creek drainage and O’Brien Creek near Missoula; the Pioneer, Boulder and Gravely mountains in southwest Montana; the Little Belt Mountains and Rocky Mountain Front; and the Beartooth Front and Boulder River in south-central Montana.

Last season, biologists captured and collared 31 black bears in FWP Regions 1, 2, 3, and 4. Of those bears, 19 are still online, while others have died or shed their collars.

“This year, we hope to collar another 30 bears,” Anton said.

In western Montana, the state does not administer hunting quotas for black bears, which Anton said is one policy that the study could have an influence over.

“Most of the state doesn’t have quotas for black bears, so if density and abundance comes back at a healthy level we might just keep that the same way and maintain the same scale of hunting opportunities,” he said. “The only mechanism in place that we take into account during spring harvest is if the number of females harvested reaches 38 percent of the population.”

For more information on FWP’s bear research and for tips on bear safety, go to fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/bear.

[email protected]