Can the Great Bear Survive Today’s Great Plains?

Can the Great Bear Survive Today’s Great Plains?

Encountering a grizzly bear has long been a potential happenstance on Montana’s mountain trails. But an expanding population of grizzlies in the Big Sky prairies have created a new kind of encounter, such as “the Bear in the Barn.”

This summer, 50-year-old farmer Shannun Rammell got word from a neighbor that grizzly bear tracks had been found near his farm east of Choteau, Montana. Rammell drove to a pond to investigate, and figured he would check an abandoned barn to make sure there no one had left grain in it that might attract an animal.

According to the local press, Rammell opened the barn door and surprised a grizzly bear that had taken shelter inside. The cornered bear shot out the door, mauling Mr. Rammell on its exit.

“As fast as that bear came out and got my husband, he couldn’t have gotten to a gun even if he’d had one,” his wife, Jamie Rammell, told a reporter. Jamie scared the bear away by driving the farm truck toward it. Here’s a telling detail: In order to collect her husband and speed him to medical help, she had to drive through a barley field.

A bit of history for context: Before European colonization, grizzly bears roamed the Western half of North America from Alaska to Mexico. The Mississippi River separated them from the land to the East. The plains tribes lived among grizzly bears in the flatlands of the Dakotas and Kansas. But after white settlement, bears were exterminated from the Great Plains as cattle replaced bison and amber waves of grain replaced the native prairies.

By the 1950s, Montana grizzlies were only found in and around Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and in the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In 1975, grizzly bears in the contiguous U.S. were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

In the 1970s, biologists estimated there were perhaps 250 grizzlies in the Northern Rockies around Glacier and the Bob. Today, more precise DNA analysis and radio-telemetry studies tell us there are around 1,000 in Western Montana’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

With this rebound, bears are spreading beyond their mountain redoubts. Grizzlies have been pushing steadily eastward from Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front into the land their ancestors shared with bison, and where only prairie animals like pronghorn and jackrabbits remain. The incident involving Rammell occurred about 25 miles from the nearest mountain. But that’s far from the record for modern prairie bears.

Earlier this summer, a different young male grizzly was killed 150 miles from the Rocky Mountains, near the farm town of Shelby, Montana. Biologists are beginning to see grizzly bear females den on the prairies, far from the mountaintops where the vast majority of modern grizzlies hibernate.

Rick Mace, a career research biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, says the persistent bruins have taken even experts by surprise.

“No one envisioned this as a possibility back then. We never even thought about it,” said Mace, who started studying grizzlies in 1976.

Today, prairie grizzlies even have their own Facebook page. Local residents and FWP biologists use it to share the latest news of where bears are showing up. Ranchers and farmers have developed informal “neighborhood watch” programs to warn each other when a bear is in the area.

Bears aren’t just exploring the flatlands, but are hibernating and raising cubs in home ranges beyond the mountains. Some bear advocates look next to the remote, rugged, 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Montana, surrounded by another million acres of Bureau of Land Management ground. This is land commonly called “The Missouri River Breaks,” famous among hunters for its trophy elk and bighorn sheep.

Could the Breaks someday host a self-sustaining population of grizzly bears? Mace says it’s not out of the question, but nor would it be easy.

“The land itself would probably still support the bears,” Mace said. “The question in my mind is, would people allow them to live there?”

Scientists have little data about the historic ecology of grizzlies on the Great Plains. Early records show that explorers, trappers, and miners commonly encountered the “white bear” while traveling along the Missouri River. For example, Lewis and Clark lost sleep in 1805 trying to camp near modern-day Great Falls, Montana, where large numbers of grizzlies were gorging on the carcasses of drowned bison. And despite what Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-winning performance in “The Revenant” might have you think, Hugh Glass was mauled on the prairie of northwestern South Dakota.

Bison are effectively gone from the Great Plains. Bears exploring the plains today appear to be living on grasses in the spring and fall crops of chokecherries, service berries, and buffalo berries that grow along riverbanks.

“It’s astonishing how much time these animals are spending in the river bottoms. They are finding their way down the Marias, the Two-Medicine, the Teton and the Sun [rivers],” Mace said.

Besides providing plant-based foods, the rivers offer up the occasional drowned carcass to scavenge and dense willow thickets for hiding and hunting cover.

However, human activities also tend to focus along these stringers of riparian habitat that cut across the prairie. And that spells trouble. The bears learn to associate people with food sources, eating livestock carcasses, and occasionally pulling apart a chicken coop or grain bin for the prize inside. At least three people were mauled outside of the mountains in the first half of 2020, including Rammell.

Some wildlife advocates would like to see bears recolonize the prairie, pointing to the CMR Refuge as potential habitat. CMR covers about 120 miles of the Missouri River corridor. About a quarter of the refuge—including its most prime river bottom habitat—is underwater, inundated by the Fort Peck Reservoir. While the CMR is sprawling, it is also long and narrow, with a lot of edges along private ranchland.

“No bear would live solely on the CMR,” Mace predicted. “They would live partially on it and partially beyond it.”

The conservation group American Prairie Reserve has invested millions in buying up ranches around the CMR Refuge as part of its “rewilding” efforts, which focus mostly on restoring bison. APR has said it would welcome grizzly bears back on land it manages, although it has no authority to bring them back unilaterally. The topic of APR and bison are highly contentious among rural Montanans, many of whom consider it an existential threat to their way of life. Many residents view grizzly bears in a similar light.

Ultimately, as is often the case with the recovery of large carnivores, the recurrence of grizzly bears across its historic range depends their ability to avoid trouble—and on the tolerance of folks who live nearby.

Featured image by Tony Bynum.

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