LEWISTON – Idaho Fish and Game officials said fresh grizzly bear tracks were found at Fish Creek Meadows, about 7 miles south of Grangeville, on Saturday.
The agency is warning people in the area to recreate with caution and advising black bear hunters to carefully identify their targets before shooting. Grizzly bears are protected under the Endangered Species Act and can’t be killed by hunters.
Although the region contains habitat well-suited for grizzly bears, it has not been known to be occupied by the animals for several decades. But that could be changing. There were a handful of reports and photographs of grizzly bears in north-central Idaho last year, two of which were confirmed to be individual bears.
The tracks at Fish Creek Meadows perhaps match up with a grizzly that was photographed by a trail camera in the White Bird Creek drainage last spring. Fish and Game biologists collected a hair sample from the White Bird bear and sent it off for genetic testing. According to the news release issued Wednesday, test results revealed the 2019 hair sample matched the DNA of a male grizzly bear that was radio collared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service near the Idaho-Canada border in 2017. The bear was a yearling at the time it was collared. The radio collar fell off the bear in 2018.
According to the news release, another hair sample was collected near the tracks found last week and submitted for testing. It is expected to take many months to get results.
If it is the same bear from the 2019 hair samples, it would now be 4 years old and have traveled hundreds of miles in Idaho and Montana during its lifetime without any known conflict with humans.
“We probably won’t know for a while,” said Wayne Kasworm, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist at Libby, Montana. “The take-home message here is there is a grizzly bear there, regardless of its identification, and folks, particularly hunters, who are out there need to be aware of that.”
Kasworm said it is likely the bear that left tracks denned relatively nearby and probably emerged from hibernation no more than a month ago. He also said the tracks were about the size that would be expected of a 4-year-old male grizzly.
Another grizzly, this one wearing a satellite tracking collar, spent much of last summer and early fall in the upper Lochsa River basin before denning in the Cabinet Mountains of Montana.
Trail cameras captured pictures of a grizzly near Lolo Pass last summer and one in Newsome Creek near Elk City. That means there could have been three or even four grizzly bears in the Clearwater Region last year.
But Kasworm said it’s possible the Newsome Creek bear was the same bear photographed near White Bird Creek, and the bear pictured near Lolo Pass was the bear wearing a satellite collar.
“I would hesitate to say we had three different bears,” he said. “I think we can very authoritatively say we had two different bears.”
The federal government once had a plan to reintroduce grizzly bears into remote areas of what is known as the Bitterroot Ecosystem in north-central Idaho and western Montana. That plan fell to political pressure, and wildlife officials opted to instead manage the area for natural recolonization by the bears.
Before last summer, the last known grizzly bear in north-central Idaho was in 2007. That bear was shot by a hunter, who mistook it for a black bear, in the upper reaches of Kelly Creek.
Some environmental groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service for allowing bear baiting on federal forests in Idaho and Wyoming. The groups, which include Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and Wilderness Watch, say the practice puts grizzlies at risk and should be banned.
The Forest Service once regulated bear baiting on land it manages, but stopped in 1992 and instead left it up to state wildlife agencies to decide when and where the practice should be allowed. The groups argue that several grizzly bears have been killed at baiting sites when hunters have mistaken them for black bears.
Information on telling the difference between black bears and grizzly bears is available atbit.ly/3cLi4YF. Fish and Game officials would like anyone who sees a grizzly bear to report it by calling the Clearwater Regional Office at (208) 799-5010 or by completing an online form at bit.ly/3bxYLBJ.
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