As Montana’s prairie grizzlies continue to push eastward, the rugged, game-rich Missouri Breaks of north central Montana could be their next conquest.
Grizzly tracks were spotted along Montana’s Judith River in October, and later a trail camera in that area caught an image of a large bear passing through.
The grizzly was more than 100 miles east of the Rocky Mountain front and the core habitat of the Northern Continental Divide grizzly population. It was initially reported to be the farthest east a grizzly had been spotted and the species’ first foray into the Missouri Breaks region in about a century.
But bears have been venturing into the breaks for a while now, and the farthest east they’ve gone is “a few miles farther” than the latest confirmed sighting, Wesley Sarmento, a Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Bear Management Specialist, told Cowboy State Daily.
Just Passing Through
Though they are now thought of as primarily a mountain wilderness species, grizzlies once roamed across the Great Plains and are at home in prairie habitat.
For several years, they’ve been pushing into prairie habitat in Montana. Meanwhile, officials in Wyoming and Nebraska have said it’s unlikely that those states ever see restored populations of prairie grizzlies.
And even in Montana, the spectacular Missouri Breaks country has so far eluded an established grizzly population.
So far, there have been only a few lone bears, likely mostly males, passing through on foraging runs, said Sarmento, who is based in Conrad, Montana.
“Young males do tend to disperse outward first,” he said.
The Missouri Breaks are rich with wildlife. There’s great mule deer hunting there, as well as some elk, and rare bighorn sheep hunting tags in the breaks are many a hunter’s dream.
The most recent bear in the breaks was probably taking advantage of deer hunters’ leftovers, Sarmento said.
“This time of year, they’re probably picking up deer carcasses or gut piles left by hunters. That’s what probably drew this bear to that area,” he said.
The bear’s photo was captured by a trail camera set up by the American Prairie conservation group. A message left for an American Prairie representative wasn’t returned by publication time for this story.
As to whether grizzlies are gearing up to recolonize the Missouri Breaks, that remains to be seen, Sarmento said.
It will take more than a few bears wandering through now and again, he said. However, if grizzlies continue to remain under federal Endangered Species protection in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, it’s possible that they could reclaim the breaks.
Retired federal ecologist and grizzly conservation advocate Chuck Neal of Cody previously told Cowboy State Daily that grizzlies could thrive in the Missouri Breaks — and even push into North Dakota — if people will tolerate them there.
“The grizzly could not only survive, but thrive, in the Upper Missouri River Breaks at present if we accept them,” he said. “The Little Missouri Badlands in North Dakota, the badlands of western parts of the Bighorn Basin and the northern Red Desert in Wyoming are just a few areas that grizzlies could make a living at low densities at present, if we accept them.”
Montana rancher Lisa Schmidt told Cowboy State Daily that she’s learned to live with prairie grizzlies, but it’s important that people be allowed to defend their property and livestock from the bears when necessary.
Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.