Grizzly Bears In The Rocky Mountain Front
Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis). Photo by Linda Mirro/iStockphoto.com
At A Glance
- Grizzlies are listed as a threatened species. They once numbered 50,000 in the mid-19th century but by 1975 the population had fallen to about 1,000.
- The Rocky Mountain Front in Montana is home to one of the last healthy grizzly populations in the lower 48 states and the last plains grizzlies in the world.
- To date, we’ve protected more than 65,000 acres of migratory corridors for grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountain Front.
Hope For The Grizzly
"To see a rancher in his John Deere or cowboy hat start to cry when he talks about seeing a grizzly bear at dawn, it’s pretty powerful. The time has passed when these guys would have seen a grizzly bear and just shot it. Those days are over. These folks admire and have a real connection with the grizzly bear.” — Gates Watson, Montana State Director.
Big and burly, grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) are an icon of American wildlife. One of the largest mammals in North America, approximately 50,000 grizzlies lived in the continental United States until the 1800s, when settlers began moving in and cities grew. By 1975 that number fell to less than 1,000, at which point the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grizzly as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Today there are less than 1,500 grizzly bears left in the continental U.S. and the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana is home to one of the last healthy grizzly populations in the lower 48 states as well as the last plains grizzlies in the world.
The Rocky Mountain Front is where the plains meet the mountains: a drastic change in ecosystems creates an area rich with biodiversity. “The Rocky Mountain Front is the only place where [grizzly] bears are really using successfully what was their native habitat,” says Gates Watson, Director of the Fund’s Montana office.
During the fall, the grizzly travels up into the Rocky Mountains to find a remote place to hibernate—they prefer a high mountain slope surrounded by deep snow that serves as insulation. When spring arrives, the grizzly heads down to lower elevations to forage for food. The Front’s landscape—high mountains next to low prairies—appeals to grizzlies because it decreases the time between ending hibernation and finding sustenance.
Montana’s Pine Butte Swamp is one of the largest wetland complexes along the Rocky Mountain Front. Grizzlies make their way down to the swamp each spring, traveling from mountain retreats, to feed and raise their young and regain energy after hibernation.
Helping Ranchers Helps Grizzlies
Grizzly bears have had their share of negative press because of unfortunate incidents that aren’t usually entirely the bear’s fault. For the most part, many incidents can be prevented and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks educates the public on how to live safely with bears and relocates bears that wander into communities.
Ranchers do their part to live peacefully with the bear population as well. Some have adapted their ranching practices—having calves earlier in the year so that they have grown enough by spring, when the grizzlies leave hibernation and aren’t as much of a target for a bear.
We’re working with ranchers in the Rocky Mountain Front to place conservation easements on their land. What does an easement achieve? This ensures the land won’t be developed and the bears will have the land they need for habitat and migration. It also benefits the rancher because they are paid for the easement and can use that money to protect their ranching business, purchase cattle or more land.
At the Fund, we know that for conservation solutions to last, they need to make economic sense for the people who live in the area. By working with ranchers, we’ve found a successful way to help residents and wildlife live together peacefully on the Front. To date, we’ve protected 65,000 acres of migratory corridors for grizzly bears and other wildlife that depends on the Front’s rich ecosystem.