By Kayla Heinze, Communications Specialist
Just as we finished setting up the video equipment, the wolves started howling. We stood in awe and silence for a few minutes while we listened to their haunting voices rising from the forested hills just beyond Broadie Habitat Preserve.
Along with Vital Ground’s Communications Director Matt, Land Steward Brittani and our videographer Eric Ian, I had the pleasure of spending a few days in Montana’s Yaak Valley earlier this fall. We were there to meet with partners, check in on restoration projects and to chat with wildlife biologists in an area crucial to grizzly recovery.
The Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem currently hosts an estimated grizzly population of about 60 individuals south of the Canadian border, with about 25-30 of those being in the Yaak Valley. This population sits adjacent to the similarly sized Selkirk population. It is also within migration distance of the much larger Northern Continental Divide population in and around Glacier National park, though U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Wayne Kasworm says his team has not documented gene flow between the two populations.
Despite their still relatively small numbers and isolation, grizzly bear populations in the northwestern corner of Montana and Idaho’s panhandle have been slowly growing. Kasworm and his team are actively monitoring mortality rates and females with cubs to assess the health of the population.
Having long worked in the Yaak Valley, Vital Ground’s numerous projects there are carving out open space for this gradually recovering population. At Fowler Creek, where Vital Ground just protected 64 more acres, we saw bear and wolf scat, and at Broadie, Kasworm told us his telemetry data indicated a sow with cubs had been using the area. As we talked to Kasworm, a contracted restoration team planted native shrubs, like chokecherry and willows, to improve the habitat for wildlife while hawks circled overhead. It was clear that protecting these wild places has already enabled animals of all kinds to thrive.
As litigation surrounding forest use and grizzly bear habitat in the Yaak unfolds, the valley will continue to be a central and crucial spot in the broader story of this remarkable species. Your support has allowed conservation to keep up with development and other pressures, while financing innovation conflict prevention efforts. All of this work helps maintain the area’s wild and scenic character.
This trip was my first to the Yaak. Being greeted by wolf howls echoing through the larches immediately confirmed what I had heard about the valley—the Yaak is a special place full of equally special animals.