On Tuesday, grizzly bear managers announced that a representative from Montana’s Department of Transportation will be joining their committee in hopes of reducing a growing number of bear deaths on highways.
Last year 14 grizzlies died in car wrecks in the area in and around Glacier National Park. That’s compared to an average of less than four per year over the last decade and a half.
At a meeting in Kalispell Tuesday, the committee of federal, state and tribal grizzly managers focused on bears in and around Glacier National Park brought it’s first-ever representative from Montana’s DOT on board. It’s biologist Joe Weigand.
"As grizzly bear populations have increased and they're expanding their range, they’re crossing highways more frequently," Weigand says. "And as a result, we’re possibly seeing a few more collisions," Weigand says.
The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem that the committee manages is home to the largest grizzly population in the lower 48, at an estimated 1,000 bears.
Weigand says safe passage across roads is important to both human and bear safety. And, highway crossings are a key factor in bears from the NCDE connecting to populations in the Bitterroot and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems to the south.
He says DOT and bear managers are paying particular attention to Highway 93, where 41 wildlife crossing structures span the road from Missoula to Polson. Biologists have documented grizzlies crossing in the area more than 120 times total in recent years. But there’s been a concentration of bruin mortalities north of St. Ignatius.
Building more can be pricey and take years, but Weigand says some simple solutions like more fencing could help guide grizzlies into the structures and get across the road safely.
"I think it’s about time that Department of Transportation got involved with grizzly bears and highway passage issues," says Arlene Montgomery with the conservation watchdog group Friends of the Wild Swan.
Biologists at the meeting said highway crossings are one of many issues associated with a growing population of grizzlies in an expanding area.