Grizzly Bear Yellowstone, ©Sandy Sisti

The Case of Grizzly Bear Wanderlust

A 20-year old grizzly bear caught the eyes of researchers this year — and drew the interest of thousands watching the news — when they found she had traveled more than 2,800 miles from northwest Montana to northeast Idaho and back again over three years. It’s a significant distance for one female bear to travel, and it’s incredible that she did so unscathed. She crossed several highways and skirted cities before making it to her current location back in northwest Montana where it is likely she will spend the winter.

Her original home was in the Lake Blaine area of the Swan Mountains, but she was relocated to an area near Hungry Horse Reservoir in 2006 for getting into apples. Items like fruit trees, garbage, birdfeeders and chickens are enticing to bears, which are on a constant search for food. This leads to conflicts with people and in the end, bodes poorly for bears. For this bear, apples were irresistible. She was relocated again in 2012 to a more remote location in northwest Montana. That’s when researchers fitted her with a GPS collar, which is what allowed biologists to capture her amazing cross-country trek!

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Grizzly Bear Denali National Park, ©Karen Willes

This Grizzly Bear in Denali National Park was foraging on blueberries very close to the park road. (©Karen Willes)

We all know that bears hibernate in the winter and are constantly searching out food during the spring, summer and fall months, but this bear’s exhaustive journey left many perplexed. Female grizzly bears usually stay quite close to their home range. Young female bears that have been kicked off from their mom will usually set up a home range near or in the same area as their mother’s. So, to see a female move this much sets minds to wondering.When bears are on the move, the chance of conflict between bears and humans also rises. That’s where Defenders of Wildlife steps in. Defenders’ grizzly bear program is dedicated to ensuring that bears have safe habitat to live in and that people understand that there are ways to coexist with bears. Our grizzly bear conflict reduction program strives to secure items that might “lure” bears into trouble – things like bee yards, fruit trees, livestock and garbage. We’ve even developed an Electric Fencing Incentive Program that pays up to 50% of the cost of installing a fence around attractants that might cause bears to get into trouble.

We are happy to report that we completed 50 bear-resistant electric fence projects in 2014, with a few applications still trickling in. That brings our total for this program to more than 150 bear-resistant electric fences completed since 2010. That means 150 sites, many with chronic histories of bear conflicts, will now not lead to the deaths of bears.

In the case of this wandering bear, she actually did an impressive job of avoiding trouble, even as she traversed populated towns like Lolo and Missoula, Montana, walked over mountain ranges, and crossed rivers and even major highways. During her travels there were very few reports of people actually seeing her.

Although this bear may be distinctive in her movements, other grizzlies are making forays into and even living in areas that haven’t seen grizzly bears in decades. It is increasingly important to provide local landowners with the tools they need to live alongside bears while also keeping bear populations safe. That’s why we will be expanding our program’s reach by working in new areas just seeing grizzly activity for the first time in many years. This will help us protect bears as they travel, connecting important grizzly bear recovery areas.

It’s risky for a bear out there to cross a landscape while avoiding conflicts with people. This bear gives us an exceptional peek into one bear’s ability to successfully avoid conflicts even while covering a lot of land. While it is one very unique situation, it gives us hope that there remains room out there for grizzly bears to recover, if only people do our part to coexist.

We wish the best future for this bear and in the meantime, we’ll keep up our work to protect those wandering bears!

Erin Edge is a Rockies and Plains Representative at Defenders of Wildlife