Bears in the Bitterroot?

Photo: USDA Forest Service
The Bitterroot Mountains provide expansive and rich habitat for many species, and are under consideration for grizzly reintroduction.

By Kayla Heinze, Communications and Outreach Coordinator 

The Bitterroot Mountains straddle the Montana-Idaho border with steep, granite-walled drainages. With the sun often blocked by jagged ridges, Bitterroot forests are great holders of moisture, providing rich habitat for plant and animal species that typically prefer the coastal rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, such as western red cedars. 

Grizzlies have been documented in and around the Bitterroot Recovery Zone in recent years (Photo: USFWS).

The Bitterroots also form the eastern edge of one of the largest contiguous blocks of federal land in the Lower 48, an expanse that includes 4.6 million acres of designated wilderness within three adjoining areas: the Selway-Bitterroot, Frank Church-River of No Return and Gospel Hump. Along with the North Cascades Ecosystem, the Bitterroots are one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s designated recovery zones for grizzly bears that have yet to see the return of an established population. 

This may not remain the case for long. Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) mandate to recover grizzly bears in the Lower 48, the Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) aims to eventually restore a grizzly population to the Bitterroot Ecosystem. How and when this will happen is still very much undetermined. Due to a 2023 court order, the USFWS has begun the process of creating a new environmental impact statement (EIS) and record of decision (ROD) about the different potential pathways to recovery in the Bitterroot.

This process is still in its early stages, with the USFWS accepting public comments on the scope of the EIS until March 18. They will then spend the next year assessing the alternative plans and their potential impacts on everything from economic activity, recreation and hunting to biodiversity and more. The Service plans to release the draft EIS for public comment in mid-2025 and then publish a final EIS and ROD in 2026. During this current scoping phase, the agency mainly seeks input on which alternatives they should consider in the EIS review and what factors they should consider in assessing those alternatives. 

It is far too early to predict what the EIS outcome and future management of grizzlies in the Bitterroots will look like. But as a federal judge reviews petitions to remove federal ESA protections for the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide (Glacier-Bob Marshall area) grizzly populations and reintroduction proposals move forward for both the North Cascades and Bitterroots, we find ourselves in a pivotal time for the species. The actions people take now will impact the trajectory of grizzly recovery as we move into an uncertain future. 

Reintroduction or Natural Return?

Despite numerous reports of grizzlies in and near the Bitterroots in recent years, none are known to have settled down and begun reproducing there. The USFWS considers a population to be two breeding females or one female with cubs of the year in two consecutive years. With multiple ongoing efforts to detect bears in these mountains, USFWS biologists are confident there remains no resident population. 

Prior to recent wanderers, the last verified sightings of grizzlies in the Bitterroots were in the 1940s. The historic population was killed off as sheep grazing expanded in the mountains, following a recurring theme in the American West of large predators being extirpated in the name of livestock protection. 

Two decades ago, the USFWS undertook an EIS process that culminated in the decision to relocate 25 grizzlies into the recovery area as a 10(j) experimental population under the ESA. Before it could be enacted, however, a new presidential administration took office and the ROD to translocate bears was pushed aside, though never formally abandoned. Given the amount of time that has now passed, and the expanding exploratory movements of grizzlies in nearby areas, a federal judge ruled last year that the USFWS must supplement the old EIS and make a new ROD if warranted. This ruling prompted the USFWS to begin the scoping and review process for an entirely new EIS informed by previous research and assessments. 

Whether a new reintroduction proposal becomes reality or not, natural migrations offer anecdotal support for the importance of habitat protection and connection. Most of the Bitterroot’s wandering grizzlies have followed predictable pathways, moving southward out of neighboring recovery areas like the Cabinet-Yaak and Northern Continental Divide through linkage areas where Vital Ground and other conservation groups actively protect open space. If human-mediated reintroduction does occur, protected connectivity pathways in the surrounding valleys will remain essential to long-term gene flow and species health.

From Federal to Local

Photo by Patti Sowka of grizzly trying to open bear-proof garbage container
Our partners in the Bitterroot are preparing for the presence of grizzlies (Photo: Patti Sowka).

Communities in the Bitterroot Valley and surrounding areas have been aware of the possibility of grizzly return for a while. We believe helping local communities invest in conflict prevention is a necessary complement to habitat protection, which is why Vital Ground maintains an annual Conservation Partner Grants program (applications currently open until Feb. 29). 

Our partners in the Bitterroot are hard at work removing attractants, guarding livestock and investing in bear-resistant infrastructure. Supporters across the country and globe allow Vital Ground to fund these invaluable programs of coexistence, ensuring habitat is not just available to grizzlies but safe for them, too.  

Like a wandering bear making its way back to habitat that hasn’t seen grizzlies in decades, the pathway ahead isn’t entirely predictable. We can make scientifically-informed predictions about what different courses of action are likely to mean for bears and for our species, but shifting political winds, court rulings, concurrent updates in forest management plans and the actions we each take while living in grizzly country will all play a role in determining the unfolding future of grizzlies in the Lower 48. 

If you, like us, are committed to creating an abundant future for wildlife and people in the Northern Rockies, we encourage you to read up on the current Bitterroot EIS process and consider submitting a comment on potential action alternatives. Be sure to also sign up for our email newsletter and follow Vital Ground on social media, where we will provide updates on the Bitterroot EIS and highlight future public comment opportunities.

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