Billings, Montana, might not be known as grizzly territory, but wildlife officials this week confirmed one of the endangered bruins was sighted in the Pryor Mountains about 30 miles south of Billings, as the crow flies.
Grizzlies haven’t been seen in the Pryor range — which extends into Wyoming — since the 1800s.
The Pryor range also butts up against Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, where there have long been rumors of grizzlies, but no confirmed sightings.
Likely An Adventuresome Young Male
The grizzly sighting on the Montana side of the Pryor range was confirmed this week by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which didn’t release any details about the bear’s sex or estimated age.
But it’s likely a young male, some expert bear biologists told Cowboy State Daily.
Sub-adult male grizzlies are known to strike out on their own, retired federal ecologist Chuck Neal of Cody said. And it’s likely the lone bruin seen in the Pryor range came from an established population of grizzles on the east faith of Montana’s Beartooth range.
Neal said it should come as no surprise that a grizzly made it from one mountain range to the other.
“There’s been a breeding resident population of grizzlies on the east face of the Beartooths for years now, for decades,” he said. “The distance from the east face of the Beartooths to the west side of the Pryors is maybe 20 miles.”
Bear biologist Chris Servheen of Missoula, Montana, also said he suspects that the grizzly spotted in the Pryor range is a young male.
“My guess is that it is likely a subadult male, as that is the age/sex class most likely to be long distance dispersers,” said Servheen, who was the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 35 years prior to his retirement in 2016.
New Population Unlikely Anytime Soon
There have been rumors of grizzlies in the Pryor mountains for years, but a confirmed sighting probably doesn’t mean there will be an established population there anytime soon, Neal and Servheen said.
“As a rule — and nothing is a hard and fast rule in wildlife biology — but as a general rule, when bears expand their occupied range, the females are five years behind the males,” Neal said.
“Creation of a population there would require females,” Servheen added. “While a population in the area might be possible, it would be a long time until such a thing would happen.”
Depends On What People Accept
Human tolerance of the presence of grizzlies in new areas is a huge factor, Neal added. If people accept their presence, grizzlies could reclaim vast areas of Montana, including the famed Missouri River Breaks country.
“The Crow Indian Tribe has stated they would like to see grizzlies expand their range,” Neal added, and the northern end of the Pryor range extends into Crow territory.
Servheen said a lone grizzly wandering about the Pryor Range isn’t any cause for concern.
“Most grizzlies do not get into conflict with humans, so there is no need for concern that the presence of a single bear has any relationship to human-bear conflicts in the area,” he said.
Pushing Into Wyoming?
It’s not likely that the presence of grizzly in the Pryor range will lead to a new population in Wyoming, Neal and Wyoming Game and Fish Department large carnivore specialist Dan Thompson told Cowboy State Daily.
The grizzly spotted in the Pryor Mountains could feasibly push on into the Bighorn Range, if it wanted to, Neal said.
“The Pryors are essentially part of the Bighorns. The ranges are separated only by the Bighorn River canyon. It’s quite an obstacle, but grizzly bears are highly skilled at getting around obstacles,” he said.
As for the southern end of the Pryor range in Wyoming, it’s too arid and barren for a grizzly to make a permanent home there, Neal said. But the bruin might use the southern end of the range as a handy passage into the Bighorns.
Game and Fish doesn’t plan to promote grizzly populations outside of the designated management area (DMA) of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Thompson said.
“If this bear does venture into Wyoming it would be handled like other situations with a grizzly bear outside the DMA, we are definitely not promoting grizzly bears this far from suitable habitat of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.” he said.
“If any conflicts occur between grizzly bears and humans we will respond swiftly regardless of its location,” exempting Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks and Wind River Indian Reservation, Thompson said.
Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.