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Know the West

A bear named Irene

Grizzlies make a tenuous comeback in Montana’s Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.


On July 14, 1993, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crew trapped a 2-year-old female grizzly bear in British Columbia's Flathead Valley, a wild river-carved lowland just northwest of Glacier National Park. Officially, the 80-pound grizzly was designated Bear 286. Unofficially, the crew named her Irene.

The team fitted Irene with a radio-collar, packed her onto a truck and drove 150 miles through the night to the Cabinet Mountains, a rugged swath of snow-covered peaks and conifer forests tucked in Montana's northwest corner. The next morning, biologist Wayne Kasworm turned Irene loose near Lost Girl Creek.

Rarely had such great expectations been pinned on a single animal. Irene had been designated one of the involuntary saviors of the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, a 2,600-square-mile region on the Montana-Idaho border abutting Canada. It's one of six designated recovery zones in the Lower 48 where the federal government aims to protect or boost threatened grizzlies. While some recovery zones, like the lands around Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, supported growing populations, bears in the Cabinet-Yaak were spiraling toward extinction. Kasworm estimated that only 15 bears roamed the Cabinets.

Kasworm believed the only way to save the population was to supplement it with more grizzlies. The strategy, called augmentation, made biological sense, but it was politically contentious. The same year Irene moved to the Cabinet Mountains, a biologist who hoped to transplant bears to Washington's North Cascades was spat on at a public meeting. "Nobody had ever moved bears to bolster a population before the Cabinet-Yaak program," Kasworm recalls. "Obviously, it was a controversial idea."

Today, though, the strategy appears to have paid off: According to a recent DNA study, around 45 grizzlies now reside in the Cabinet-Yaak. Once on the verge of vanishing, the population is nearly halfway to 100 – the threshold at which it would be deemed no longer at risk.

The bears' persistence gives scientists hope that the Cabinet-Yaak could someday serve as a node of connection for isolated pockets of grizzlies throughout the Rockies. Yet that optimism is tempered by serious challenges, none greater than keeping bears alive in a landscape shared with humans.

In 1987, when Kasworm first floated the idea of transplanting bears to the Cabinet Mountains, locals responded with suspicion. Previous recovery efforts had been blamed for the region's floundering timber economy and the closure of backcountry roads. "When I was a kid, people would drive up to our house excited because they'd seen a bear," says Bruce Vincent, a logger whose family has lived around Libby, a town of 2,700 that's the Cabinet-Yaak's largest population center, since 1904. "But attitudes changed. The bears became 'goddamned grizzly bears.' "

Vincent wasn't opposed to augmentation, but he and the USFWS agreed that locals deserved a voice in how it was implemented. He and other community leaders, including elected officials and timber and mining industry representatives, created a committee to guide the plan. Kasworm agreed to delay relocation to hold meetings and modify the program.

Finally, the committee consented to a conservative experiment: Starting in 1990, Fish and Wildlife would relocate four young females over a five-year period. If the bears stuck around and reproduced, the augmentation would proceed. If not, it would be years before the scientists got another shot. "That citizens committee was how we were able to pull this off," Kasworm says.

Initially, though, the bears didn't cooperate: The first shed her radio-collar and disappeared, and the second was found dead just a year after being released. Irene, however, survived and stayed out of trouble. Kasworm gave biweekly updates on her whereabouts on a local radio show.

Then, in 1995, Irene slipped her collar. She was gone, the augmentation in jeopardy. For several years, scientists tried in vain to recapture Irene and two other introduced bears. Were they still alive? Had they wandered away, or stayed to reproduce? Nobody knew – until 2004, when a barbed-wire snare snagged a clump of hair that DNA analysis identified as Irene's. She was alive, and as later hair-snares revealed, had borne nine cubs. Her cubs in turn gave birth to eight more. By 2012, Kasworm had identified 35 individual bears; 20 were Irene's descendants or mates. Almost singlehandedly, she'd rescued the Cabinet population.

Encouraged by Irene's success, and with the community's cautious blessing, Kasworm and the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department began relocating more bears, about one a year. They've now introduced 15 grizzlies altogether, most recently a 3-year-old male in 2013.

Augmentation only works, however, if the bears survive. The Cabinet-Yaak is just a fraction the size of the recovery zones centered around Yellowstone and Glacier, and though its human inhabitants are few in number, the ecosystem has been fractured by nearly 4,000 miles of open roads and scattered pockets of logging and mining. That fragmentation makes fatal conflicts with wide-ranging bears almost inevitable. Grizzlies have been slaughtered by poachers, hit by trains, and shot legally by people who felt threatened. Still more have been mistakenly slain by black bear hunters, or euthanized after developing a taste for human food. Altogether, at least 48 Cabinet-Yaak grizzlies have been killed by humans since 1982, about three times as many as have died from natural causes.

In other words, the Cabinet-Yaak is losing bears as fast as it's gaining them. "The main reason our population hasn't grown much in the last 10 years is human-caused mortality," says Kim Annis, bear management specialist at the Montana wildlife agency.

That mortality, combined with the population's narrow gene pool – granddaughters have bred with their own grandfathers – means augmentation won't cease anytime soon. Though Kasworm predicts that "there will come a point when we can let this population go its own way," he adds, "Right now, I can't tell you when that point will be."

The vague timetable frustrates some locals, who are ready for the recovery process, and resulting road restrictions, to be over. "We need to have a frank discussion about what success looks like," Vincent says. "Living with bears is part of the romance of calling this place home. But it's hard for people to accept the management regime." In a 2008 survey, over 70 percent of locals believed bears should be conserved, but less than half supported the federal goal of 100 grizzlies.

The bears are hardly the sole point at issue: Volatile lumber markets have shuttered sawmills, and road closures have as much to do with maintenance costs as bears. Environmental groups also frustrate locals, especially the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which often comments on and challenges timber sales that threaten grizzly habitat. Between 2006 and 2008, it filed more lawsuits against the U.S. Forest Service than any other group did during that time – 42 altogether. "The science shows that most grizzlies are killed near roads," explains Executive Director Mike Garrity, who estimates the organization wins 85 percent of its lawsuits and appeals. "You can't keep bringing in bears without protecting their habitat."

Kasworm, who fears the lawsuits are eroding local support for grizzlies, has supported timber projects that he thinks wouldn't harm bears. Some, he says, could even benefit the animals by clearing space for huckleberries, a primary food source. "No bears are dying for lack of huckleberries," retorts Garrity. "The limiting factor for grizzlies is secure habitat."

Ultimately, the most serious problem might be isolation. The Cabinets' bears are cut off from populations that could grow their numbers and diversify their genetic pool. Although bears occasionally wander over from the Selkirk Mountains, the Whitefish Range and Canada, those nomads haven't reproduced. Increasing the exchange of bears between ecosystems, says Chris Servheen, grizzly recovery coordinator for Fish and Wildlife, will help restore the health and resilience of bears throughout the Rockies. "This was all part of their continuous range," he says. "Grizzlies shrank into these small units because of human impacts."

The Cabinet-Yaak population might be small, but its central location between Glacier, the Selkirks, and Canada makes it an important piece in the bigger bear puzzle. Ryan Lutey, director of lands at Vital Ground, a nonprofit that seeks to connect grizzly populations through strategic land acquisitions, dreams of a day when the region is capable of supplying bears to other ecosystems – especially the Bitterroot, a 5,600 square-mile recovery zone 120 miles south. Although the designated wilderness at its core makes it prime habitat, the Bitterroot has no grizzlies, in part because a planned relocation program fell victim to anti-bear politics in 2001.

For now, simply surviving is challenge enough for the Cabinet-Yaak's bears. One casualty occurred in November 2009, when an elk hunter shot an old female he claimed was threatening him. When Kasworm examined the corpse, he noticed small holes in its ears, where tags had once hung. This was one of his bears, and though he hadn't seen her in 16 years, he suspected he knew which one. DNA analysis confirmed it: Irene was dead.

Rather than mourn her death, though, Kasworm chose to celebrate Irene's extraordinary life. "She contributed so much," he says. "I don't know where this population would be without her."