VI. Bears in the Bitterroots

Charles Jonkel Video

The Selway-Bitterroot area is kind of unique and different when it comes to bears. It is bear habitat, but it's granitic, so there are huge areas of just rock. The soils aren't as rich as limestone soils would be. So I don't think this is as productive, at least in some bear foods. But another thing about the Bitterroots: It used to have salmon runs on the west side, and it used to have the Bitterroot Valley on the east side of the Bitterroots. When Lewis and Clark came through I'm sure the bear used the Bitterroots, but maybe not at time of year that they were in the Bitterroots. I don't know how many days they spent in the Bitterroots, but you're looking at probably a couple of weeks each way. And if it was the wrong time of year you're not going to see many bears. If you come through in the winter you wouldn't see any.

Bitteroot Background

"When famed explorers Lewis and Clark traveled through the Bitterroot Mountains of central Idaho in the early 19th century, they found a large and healthy population of grizzly bears living in the area."

Thus begins the National Wildlife Federation's Web site on Grizzly Bear Reintroduction in the Bitterroot Ecosystem of Idaho and Montana.

There may indeed have been "a large and healthy population" in the Bitterroot Mountains, but the explorers didn't see them. In fact, Meriwether Lewis summarized his observations on their habitats in his journal entry for Febuary 16, 1806:

The brown, white or grizly bear are found in the rocky mountains in the timbered parts of it or Westerly side but rarely; they are more common below the rocky Mountain on the borders of the plains where there are copses of brush and underwood near the water courses.

Actually, there were at least a few grizzlies in the Bitterroots until the 1940s. Recently, a proposal to reintroduce them into that ecosystem has become a controversial issue in western Montana and eastern Idaho. In the next video interview, Dr. Charles Jonkel discusses his views on the proposal.

—Joseph Mussulman

But certainly the bears used the Bitterroots. Right up until the thirties and early forties there were grizzlies that came into Missoula, into the Rattlesnake [valley], by Rattlesnake school, and out by the meat-packing plant by Reserve, where grizzlies came down out of the Bitterroots and out of the Rattlesnake [mountains] to feed on carrion.

Another thing about the Bitterroots is that they've been burned terribly, by fires early in the century. So early in this century, and on into the 20s and 30s, that was sheep country. There were very few trees in the Bitterroots. It was grassland, and there were sheep all over the Bitterroots, and I think the bears did quite well. But in those days it wasn't just sheepherder, it was a sheepherder and a kid with a rifle that was with the sheep. And the kid with the rifle shot bears and wolves and coyotes, and other vermin. So it was quite a different world then. I think, in terms of today, it still is grizzly bear habitat. It's not as good as Glacier Park, or the Whitefish Range, or areas on up into B.C. and Alberta. But nonetheless it could have grizzly bears. They won't have salmon to feed on, they won't have the Bitterroot Valley to use. There will be some problems, I think, until they learn they can't go down and eat apples in the Bitterroot Valley. But they will learn that. It takes time. It might take a generation or two. With something like augmentation or reintroduction, with wolves and bears, you've got to give them time. They've got to learn how to use an area. They've got to learn the do's and the dont's. It took several generations to eliminate them from areas; it's going to take several generations, probably, for them to learn how to use an area again.

I think grizzlies can survive in the Bitterroots. I don't think there'll ever be a high density of them. But there needs to be more research. I'm quite upset with the way the whole thing has gone. There's a whole list of research topics that weren't dealt with that should be, such as the soil type, and the plant foods that are there, or aren't there. That should be documented. What are the black bears going to think of grizzlies coming in? It's plumb full of black bears right now, and if you take sub-adult grizzly bears and put them into a dense population of black bears, the big black bears are going to kill the little grizzlies. So I think we need a database on that. We need connecting corridors. We need to know what they are and where they are, and make sure the corridors are there, and protected.

So to my mind there's a lot of research that should have been done. A lot on public attitudes for people in the Bitterroot, and for potato farmers over on the other side of the mountains. Sure they're going to be afraid of grizzly bears. If there's none there, and you say I'm going to bring some in, they're going to be afraid. And you have to deal with that in terms of research and in terms of programs. That wasn't done.