Grizzly bear photographed in Big Belt mountainsSource: Great Falls Tribune
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Montana grizzly bears keep showing up in new places, attempting to recolonize habitat they occupied historically.
This time, it’s the Big Belt Mountains northwest of White Sulphur Springs, which separate the Helena and White Sulphur Springs valleys.
A photograph of the bear, which is pulling back a rock with his paw, was taken earlier this month by a remote trail camera set up by a Fish, Wildlife and Parks wolf biologist.
It’s the second time this summer grizzly bears have traveled great distances into areas where the species hasn’t been seen in decades.
“This is the first record we’ve had in a very long time in the Big Belts,” said Jay Kolbe, an FWP wildlife biologist based in White Sulphur Springs in Meagher County.
He wasn’t surprised.
“To me, it’s a surprise it’s taken this long,” said Kolbe, noting grizzly bears have been confirmed to the south, north and west of the Big Belts.
White Sulphur Springs is 98 miles south of Great Falls and and 76 miles east of Helena.
In June, a pair of grizzlies came down the Teton River from the Rocky Mountain Front and ended up near Stanford, east of Great Falls. A grizzly bear had never been documented that far east before, at least in modern times, according to FWP.
People saw those bears and took photos at various times during their journey east. Those young bears were later captured and euthanized after they preyed on livestock.
The Big Belts bear doesn’t have the same history of being sighted by people.
“The question is, ‘Where did this bear come from?'” said Gary Bertellotti, FWP Region 4 supervisor in Great Falls. “We have no clue. And how long has it been there?”
The continued rapid expansion of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly bear population away from the core recovery area continues to take the public and even FWP officials by surprise, Bertellotti said.
“We are actually training them and giving them bear spray,” Bertellotti said of FWP personnel such as fisheries staff who routinely work along river corridors.
The NCDE population is federally listed as threatened and therefore protected but its population is now more than 1,000 bears and considered recovered by FWP.
The long-distance travels by bears to locations where they’ve haven’t been for a century presents management challenges, Bertellotti said.
FWP can remove bears from the population, or move them to new locations, if they get into conflicts with people or livestock.
“If we are not in conflict, what’s our course of action?” Bertellotti said. “If they are in conflict, we have a very clear set of rules we follow.”
FWP plans to leave the Big Belts bear alone, Bertellotti said. The animal appeared to be alone on the range’s east slope, and FWP is not aware of any conflicts it was involved in. It is not wearing a radio collar.
But the agency will try to monitor its movements.
“The public is critical in our understanding of where these bears show up,” Bertellotti said.
Starting July 24, a new bear management specialist, Wesley Sarmento, will begin working for FWP out of Conrad north of Great Falls.
His hiring was a response to the increasing number of bears moving out of the core recovery area from the Rocky Mountain Front.
The decision was made to euthanize the two bears that passed by Great Falls en route to Stanford earlier this summer because they preyed on livestock, Bertellotti said. That made the bears more prone to attacking livestock again, he said. Another factor in the decision was the great distances the bears traveled, which made it more likely they would not remain put after being relocated, Bertellotti said. And they were not critical to the survival of the population, he noted.
In recent years, bears have traveled the river corridors — Sun, Marias, Dearborn and Teton — east from the Rocky Mountain Front looking for natural foods.
Kolbe’s best guess is the Big Belts bear wandered over from the Rocky Mountain Front.
Ty Smucker, an FWP wolf biologist based in White Sulphur Springs, saw tracks he suspected might have been left by a grizzly bear. He put cameras out as he does routinely to monitor for wolf presence.
In May, pictures of a grizzly bear showed up. The camera captured more pictures of a bear in early July. If it is the same bear, Kolbe said, it may be more of a resident bear now as opposed to just passing through the area.
Based on its lanky stature and facial features, and given the fact young grizzly bears remain with their mothers through their second year, Kolbe suspects the bear is about 3 years old.
If you live, hunt in grizzly country
Homeowners in bear country should take down bird feeders, secure garbage inside a closed garage or secure shed, feed pets inside, clean up chicken and livestock feed, and in general remove all odorous substances that can draw bears.
Black bear hunters also need to know the difference between black bears, which are a legal big game species, and grizzlies, which are a federally protected species in north central Montana.
A properly installed and maintained electric fence is an excellent way to protect livestock, poultry, beehives, rabbits, fruit trees, and gardens from bears.
FWP has brochures and a webpage with additional information on electric fencing at