As bear activity is picking up across northwest Montana, grizzly bear managers are juggling the uncertain and unexpected impacts of COVID-19 on wild places.
On Friday, state, federal and tribal wildlife officials met remotely over Zoom for their semi-annual meeting. The group discussed how to manage the largest grizzly populations in the lower 48 states – the bears in and around Glacier National Park.
Glacier National Park superintendent Jeff Mow reported last year was the second busiest on record for tourists in the park.
“This year’s gonna look very, very different,” he said.
The park is gearing up for a limited reopening. He expects local, Montana-based tourism to flow in, while visitors from far away will likely stay closer to home. It means a far lower human impact on wildlife than the park has seen for decades.
“I don’t know what it means for grizzly bears,” Mow said.
But officials said the national park’s closure has pushed more recreationists – and, potentially, their impacts on grizzlies - to other public lands. Kurt Steele is superintendent of Flathead National Forest.
“We definitely are seeing an increased use, at least the Flathead National Forest ,compared to this time of year normally,” he said.
Randy Arnold, regional supervisor at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the same is true on state land.
“Saw a record, certainly for the time of year, record attendance at fishing access sites in state parks,” he said.
But grizzlies have been busy too, since waking up from their winter slumber. 14 bears have died or been removed from the population of about 1,000 animals, due to conflicts with ranchers, hunters and recreationists. That comes after two back-to-back record-breaking years of grizzly mortality in the region.
However, that frenzy of grizzly activity isn’t evenly distributed.
“Thankfully, it’s been a slow year compared to what everybody else has done,” said Stacy Courville of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
While the Rocky Mountain Front, the Blackfoot Valley and other parts of northwest Montana have seen lots of action, bear conflicts have so far been slow compared to years past on the Flathead Reservation and in the prairies east of the Front, where bears are steadily expanding.
Last winter, a federal judge ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct an overdue look at the health of the species, which is currently listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Hilary Cooley, grizzly bear recovery coordinator with the FWS, said the agency is on track to finish up that document by the judge’s March 2021 deadline.
“And that status review will recommend whether that listing should remain the same, or if it should be uplisted or delisted,” she explained.
Officials abandoned a plan to delist the population of bears in 2018 after a federal court returned protection to a different population of grizzlies in the Yellowstone area. If the agency recommends delisting any population of bears, Cooley said they would propose a formal rule, followed by ample time for public comment.