On the edge of Glacier National Park, the North Fork of the Flathead River flows through the wildest ecosystem in the continental United States.
It's the only place in
the continental U.S. where mountain lions, gray wolves and grizzly
bears share habitat - along with black bears, coyotes, lynx,
wolverines, whitetail and mule deer, elk, moose, a smattering of
cattle and a growing population of humans.
other ecologic complex exists like it," says Maurice Hornocker,
director of Hornocker Wildlife Research Institute at Moscow,
Glacier Park and its wide-open habitat
occupy the east bank of the North Fork. Only about 3 percent of the
land along the river is privately owned. No amenities and a rough
road buffer the region from the developmental Sturm und Drang
roiling the nearby Flathead Valley.
remote character is changing. Extensive logging has bared vast
expanses where wildlife once could travel covertly. The hillsides
are scarred by new roads.
"Big trees are hard to
find," says John Frederick, owner of a hostel in the area and head
of the North Fork Preservation Association. A sweeping 1988 forest
fire wiped out many trees, he says, and "logging didn't help any."
Estimates show only some 200 to 250 people
inhabit the North Fork, most of them summer or weekend visitors,
but new vacation homes go up each year. They dot landscapes
grizzlies historically used to travel from Glacier Park to the
Whitefish Range and back again.
development can the area's grizzlies take? That's what a U.S. Fish
and Wildlife study is trying to determine.
doesn't take a rocket scientist to say development affects bears,"
says Chris Servheen, leader of the study. "What we want to
understand is how bears respond and how their mortality is affected
- and what to do about it."
Servheen and his
research team are tracking the movements of 15 grizzlies, both
inside and outside Glacier Park. The scientists hope to chart the
areas in the valley bottom grizzlies prefer for travel between
mountain ranges. The scientists then will plot maps to show
precisely what areas grizzlies are frequenting - the "linkage
zones' - and which they are avoiding.
Servheen will work with private landowners, the U.S. Forest Service
and Park Service, and the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and
Parks to write a management plan for the North Fork with grizzlies
Meanwhile, wolves and mountain lions are
making a difference for the North Fork's bears. Wolves have ganged
up on grizzlies at least once. On an Oct. 25, 1993, radio-tracking
helicopter flight, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researcher Nancy
Kehoe got what she called a "special wildlife observation." She saw
a pack of 17 to 18 wolves attacking a grizzly sow and her young
The pack separated mother and cub,
alternating its pursuit from one to the other. Kehoe and her pilot
watched the attack for about five minutes, until the bears
apparently scrambled up trees and out of harm's way. Later the
researchers looked for signs that the grizzlies had been killed,
but found none, Kehoe says.
More often, grizzlies
benefit from sharing the land with wolves, as well as with lions.
Bears sometimes snatch kills from lions, says Hornocker, and they
feed off carcasses left by both lions and wolves. At least one
North Fork grizzly didn't hibernate in 1992-93, preferring to spend
his days reaping the rewards of his competitors' winter
During a two-month study last year, wolves
stole 18 fresh carcasses from 10 lions - more than one-quarter of
the felines' 65 kills.
How all this competition
for food affects prey is the question doctoral candidate Kyran
Kunkel is asking. Working from a private cabin about 10 miles from
Canada, Kunkel is the latest in a string of University of Montana
biologists studying wolves since the first pack, known as the
"Magic Pack," migrated south across the border some dozen years
Kunkel is in the second year of a three-year
look at the effects of gray wolves on ungulates - the deer, elk and
moose they feed upon. He tracks several wolves from each of four
study packs north and south of the U.S.-Canada
Along the North Fork, whitetail deer
appear to be hardest hit. Wolves, lions, bears and humans are
killing more deer than the herd can sustain, Kunkel
Elk numbers are declining or stabilizing in
the North Fork Valley, although mountain lions may be more to blame
than wolves, Kunkel thinks.
populations appear to be reaching a balance. Two packs totaling 32
wolves now live along the North Fork. Kunkel also monitors two
packs north of the U.S.-Canada border, numbering 10 and five
wolves. Five pups have been discovered in one Canadian
When his work is finished, Kunkel hopes to
have some solid information on how wolves affect deer, moose and
elk populations, so public agencies can better decide management
actions. The idea, he says, is to maintain healthy populations of
both predators and prey.
While wolves compete
with lions for prey, lions may actually be food for the wolves,
Since 1992, Hornocker's teams
have used dogs to track, tree and collar lions both outside and
inside Glacier National Park - the first time the park allowed dogs
inside its borders.
Wolves followed lion tracks
at least six times last year, Hornocker says, and treed lions as
Hornocker hopes to spend at least
three more years in the area studying lion-wolf dynamics. Although
public agencies have turned down his requests for funding,
Hornocker says he'll make his results available to anyone. That
includes wolf recovery experts at Yellowstone National
Sherry Jones writes in