When most people picture a hulking grizzly, they envision him roaring in a remote mountain canyon, stalking salmon beside an Alaskan river cutting through tundra and willows, or possibly answering questions around the BACKPACKER office. The probably don't envision him (or her) tromping about in the wide open plains of Middle America.
But historically, prairies formed much of the grizzly's former range (Lewis and Clark ran into a few), and it looks like they're trying to go back. This season, both scientists and ranchers have spotted and tracked "unprecedented" numbers of grizzlies moving east into the plains, more than 100 miles from their recent range in the Montana Rockies.
Plains locals—several of whom took the first photos of the colonizing grizzlies—say they aren't quite prepared to deal with encroaching bruins they usually think of as a "mountain problem." The towns of Dupuyer, Choteau, and Fort Benton have seen increased grizzly activity, and wildlife officials are offering $11,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the poacher who killed "Maximus," a famous 800-lb. grizzly who frequented the area without incident.
But these same officials remain optimistic about the future of plains bears.
“Thirty or forty years ago the bears were persecuted when they came out of the mountains,” said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We’ve tried to build tolerance with the people that live, work and recreate with bears,” he explained. “Those things together result in fewer mortalities, which results in more cub production and more bears.”
Prairies offer ideal habitat for grizzlies, and are often full of chokecherries and buffalo berries when the mountains are barren. More grizzlies are apt to learn about the plains from their mothers and continue to expand into this new, fertile territory. One young male nearly made it to the Missouri River by following the protected corridor of canyons along the Teton River. He was only caught after killing a sheep on a farm near the ranching community of Loma, northeast of Great Falls, Mont.
Wildlife managers relocated him to the west side of the Continental Divide near Marias Pass. But the lure of the prairie proved to strong: His last signal was recorded as he was moving north and east towards the grasslands once again.