New norm: Grizzly bears bear down on Great Falls

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The first grizzly bear in Benton Lake Wildlife Refuge 13 miles north of Great Falls was spotted by officials on June 14, 2018.
Video by Sarah Dettmer

Unwelcoming coyotes give bear the business

A grizzly bear, not birds, was the main attraction Thursday at Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge 13 miles north of Great Falls.

It was the first recorded sighting of a grizzly bear at the bird-watching mecca since it was created in 1929, said Rob Bundy, refuge manager, who snapped photos of the historic moment.

Several coyotes barked at the bear giving it the business for intruding in an area in the grassy expanse where they had a den, Bundy said.

“They were pretty much telling the bear they didn’t want him around,” Bundy said.

Such sightings of Montana’s state animal on the wide-open prairie are no longer unusual, said Gary Bertellotti, Region 4 supervisor of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Great Falls.

“This represents more of a norm we are going to see from here on out,” Bertellotti said.

The bear was last seen headed north. FWP officials say they don’t know if it will stick around.

It was young grizzly based on the size of its tracks.

“He’s not that big,” said Trenten Farmer, an FWP game warden.

Game wardens Kqyn Kuka and Farmer followed the Benton Lake bear in a pickup truck for a while as it ambled along in the rain.

“I don’t know how we lost him because it was just flat,” Kuka said.

Later, the game wardens, armed with bear spray, set out on foot to look for tracks.

“Hey, found it!” said Farmer on the edge of a marsh after spotting a grizzly track in the mud.

The pad of the footprint measured about 4.6 inches across.

Grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which number more than 1,000 bears, are expanding eastward from the Rocky Mountain Front onto the prairie and farm country, Bertelloti said.

They are using rivers and streams as highways.

“Because the habitat is so open, they will become more and more visible,” Bertellotti said.

 

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meets next week and delisting the federally protected and threatened NCDE grizzly bear is on the agenda, Bertellotti said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release a delisting proposal in the fall, he added.

Benton Lake personnel used a spotting scope in the refuge office to watch the grizzly, which was west of the refuge office.

Later, game wardens from FWP arrived to check out the bear and saw it, too.

They took no action. Besides bothering the coyotes, the bear wasn’t bothering anybody else Thursday.

“At this point, it’s doing what bears do,” Bertellotti said. “It’s not creating a conflict or problem.”

If the bear does pose a potential problem, it will be trapped and relocated, Bertellotti said.

The arrival of the bear in the outskirts of Great Falls comes as bear management specialist Wesley Sarmento and bear management technician Sarah Zielke have been working overtime this summer responding to sightings and conflicts from bears pushing out onto the prairie.

On Monday, a young female grizzly bear died after getting into insecticide in an open garage 11 miles northwest of Carter, which is 21 miles northeast of the refuge.

More: Young grizzly eats insecticide in a garage, dies north of Great Falls

The female had been seen traveling with a sibling bear.

That sibling is still believed to be in the area.

It wasn’t clear whether the bear sighted on the refuge is that bear or a different grizzly, FWP officials said.

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Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks game wardens, Kqyn Kuka, left, and Trenten Farmer scan the horizon for a young grizzly bear that visited Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday morning. (Photo: TRIBUNE PHOTO/RION SANDERS)

The 12,459-acre Benton Lake was established as a refuge and breeding ground for birds and features eight wetland areas and native grasses that provide safe nesting areas for waterfowl and a variety of songbirds. 

“It’s interesting it’s on a federal wildlife refuge,” Bertelloti said.

The previous day, on Wednesday, Clay Ronish, a federal wildlife officer, received a voicemail from a person reporting that they had seen a bear running along the refuge boundary.

Ronish saw the bear for himself Thursday morning.

“It was pretty cool,” he said.

Kuka said the bear may have traveled west from the Rocky Mountains along the Teton before heading south toward the refuge. 

“These are young ones where they’re trying to find their spot in life,” she said. 

This isn’t the first time a grizzly bear has neared the edge of Great Falls.

On June 1, 2017, a plucky pair of young grizzlies turned up at the mouth of Box Elder Creek, where it enters the south side of the Missouri River, between Ryan and Morony dams 12 miles northeast of Great Falls and its 60,000 residents. That was the same vicinity where Pvt. Hugh McNeal, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, ran into a grizzly bear in July 1806, when the expedition passed through the area on its homeward journey.

More: Montana golfer demands refund due to course hazard: Grizzly bear

“There’s going to be more of this,” said Bob Johnson, deputy manager of the Benton Lake refuge. “They used to be all over the prairie, so here they come.”

Sarmento said FWP moves more quickly to remove problem bears on the prairie in the Golden Triangle because they are not critical to the success of the core population, which he says is now recovered. 

“Human safety is our No. 1 priority,” Sarmento said. “The second one is property protection.”

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