Grizzly bear mortalities, due to vehicle collisions on US Hwy 93 embedded within the Flathead Indian Reservation, happen far too often. With 41 existing wildlife crossing structures, there are still areas of US Hwy 93 that have yet to be mitigated and considered “wildlife friendly”. The year of 2018 was brutal for grizzly bears on the FIR, eight bears were hit & killed on US Hwy 93, prior to this there had only been 9 grizzly bears hit and killed between 1998-2016.
One stretch of highway, considered by many within the Mission Valley to be one of the most important, due to its amazing habitat and rich variety of wildlife, is a 14 mile stretch of highway that runs through state, federal, and tribally owned wildlife management areas associated with Post Creek and the Ninepipe wetland complex. This is the location where the Matriarch grizzly bear, known as “Griz-40” met her demise and was struck by a vehicle on Friday, September 4th, 2020, when she was crossing Hwy 93 at 2am.
The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribal Wildlife Management Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks have a long history of collaborating management practices, while working with many wildlife species. CS&KT along with Montana FW&P have been cooperatively monitoring grizzly bears actively since 2004, when the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) trend monitoring study began. For more information visit Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) http://igbconline.org/.
This is where Griz-40’s story begins, as she was first captured by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in the Swan Valley and fitted with a radio collar for tracking in 2001. DNA and other samples collected from the bear determined that she was born in 1995. Biologists monitored the bear with collars from 2001-2005, making her one of the first trend monitoring bears for the NCDE. She was recaptured and monitored from 2015-2016.
During all of that monitoring, Griz-40 was never classified as a “conflict bear”, known locations were only documented in the Swan Valley and she was never detected while wearing a collar on the west side of the Mission Mountains. She was known to have bred a bear named “Sias”, not just once in 2002, but again 2006 & in 2009. Sias was collared by CSKT & FWP Wildlife Biologists east of Ronan for breaking into a barn to access feed corn. After his capture and release, he was recaptured in the Swan Valley and euthanized in 2011 by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, for breaking into at least nine garages and sheds to access food. Sias was aged at 13 years at his death, his teeth were worn down so far, that it was most likely easier for him to access stored food sources.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has captured nine bears that were identified as Griz-40’s offspring, using DNA to determine parentage. Her female offspring have produced at least 11 grand-offspring, including a male grizzly bear that was captured at the Stevensville golf course in 2018. The last litter biologists know about occurred when Griz-40 was 21 years old in 2016, where she gave birth to three cubs. One of these cubs was captured and collared in 2018 by the CSKT Wildlife Management Program. This sub-adult bear, named “Kiki” was monitored for Graduate research at the University of Montana, by Kari Eneas, a Tribal Wildlife Biologists. Her project was evaluating how grizzly bears use habitat in the Mission Valley in relation to small livestock, as well as the effectiveness of electric fence at deterring grizzly bear conflicts.
According to Stacy Courville, Carnivore Management Specialist, “losing bears, especially females to the population is detrimental, it isn’t good for the overall health and future of the population”. As Bear-40 demonstrates, females are important to maintaining population levels by producing offspring.
Grizzly vehicle collisions on US Highway 93 has been a source of concern for CSKT for many years. “We are working with the Montana Department of Transportation and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to come up with highway improvements that will work for grizzlies when the highway reconstruction resumes in the Ninepipe area including the construction to add a 500-foot Post Creek bridge”, said CSKT Wildlife Biologist Whisper Camel-Means. “This is sad to see them killed and a complicated issue to fix, grizzly bears are smart and move around where they want to.”
For more information, contact Stephanie Gillin, CSKT DFWR&C Information & Education Program Manager at (406) 883-2888. Or Dillon Tabish Montana FWP Information & Education Program Manager for Region 1 at (406) 751-4564.