July 6, 2021|By Val Keefer| Land

Growing Grizzly Populations Breed Excitement and Uncertainty in Montana

Cattle ranchers and grizzly bears may not sound like a match made in heaven, but along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, local ranchers have been some of the most valuable stewards of grizzly bear habitat in the West. Despite challenges that grizzly bear populations can bring, such as harm to livestock, most ranchers along the Front have great respect for these apex predators and want to see their habitat remain intact forever. To date, local ranchers have worked with conservation groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to permanently protect over 220,000 acres of land for wildlife habitat, benefitting species like grizzlies, elk and nesting birds.

7 5 21 Rocky Mountain Front aerial Todd Kaplan 71 1The Rocky Mountain Front is where prairies meet the mountains in western Montana. Photo by Todd Kaplan.

Since grizzlies were put on the endangered species list in 1975, their population on the Front has more than doubled. The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) grizzly population, which is the largest remaining population south of the Canadian border, recorded only 386 bears in the early 1980s. Today, there are well over 1,000 bears in the NCDE and protected land and dedicated landowners have greatly contributed to that growth.

At A Glance

  • Since the 1980s, grizzly bear populations have increased from 386 to well over 1,000 on the Rocky Mountain Front
  • To date, over 220,000 acres have been protected on the Front with conservation easements
  • Conservation easements allow ranches to stay in private ownership while restricting development that would hinder wildlife habitat
  • Part of an effort to protect 250,000 acres total along the Front

Mike Madel—who has 40 years of experience working with grizzlies in the area—has seen this population expansion firsthand. As the State of Montana’s first grizzly bear biologist, he specialized in human/bear conflict management—not an easy feat in an area where bears seem to favor private ranchland in the lower regions rather than higher elevations in the nearby public Bob Marshall Wilderness.

“When I was first brought on, the goal was to work with the ranching communities and individual ranchers that were experiencing conflict with grizzly bears, usually related to livestock depredations,” Mr. Madel explained to me. One solution to these depredations, or livestock casualties, is capturing and relocating “troublemaker” bears to a different, less populated area. I call them troublemakers because once a grizzly learns that calves and cattle are easy prey, it becomes a bad habit that’s hard to break. However, despite Mr. Madel’s much-needed expertise in the area, he shared that more ranchers actually like having the bears around than one would think.

7 5 21 Mike Madel photo courtesy of Mike MadelMike Madel shown with a grizzly captured in 2017 and relocated to another area.

“There’s a lot of Rocky Mountain Front ranchers that like to see grizzly bears on their land, and they understand that they’re providing grizzly bear habitat,” he added.

The Front has always been great bear habitat, since well before they were ranches. The large landscape of native prairie grassland and riparian zones have been a dense and productive grizzly bear haven used for travel corridors and foraging. It was only natural that these sites were identified as priorities for conservation and, to date, we’ve worked with dozens of ranchers to protect over 220,000 acres with conservation easements, including nearly 100,000 acres within the FWS’ Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Area. 

One of these pioneering ranchers is Karl Rappold, whose family has ranched on the Front for almost 150 years. “My grandfather homesteaded the ranch in 1882, and I’m the third generation to run it,” said Rappold. “We’ve always been a cattle ranch and have tried to live alongside the wildlife. When the bears are out here not bothering anything, it’s nice to have them around. They’re pretty important to me.”

7 5 21 Karl Rappold courest of Save the FrontKarl Rappold, third generation rancher. Photo courtesy of Save the Front.

Mr. Rappold notes that, while his grandfather and father often encountered grizzlies during their ranching tenure, the volume of them has increased tremendously during his nearly 70 years on the land, almost to a point of saturation. He shared that almost 80 years had gone by without an incident between grizzlies and one of his calves. However, the last two years have been more challenging as populations have grown.

“The grizzly bear is a prime example of how great the endangered species program was. But here on the Front they’ve been fully recovered, and it’s time for a new management plan,” Rappold said. “I go out to fence, and I might see two or three grizzly bears out on the ranch every day. You won’t even see that at Bob Marshall Wilderness where there’s 1.5 million acres for them to run around in.”

The Rappold ranch is uniquely situated adjacent to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which was established in 1964 for public recreation and big game hunting. The complex consists of mountain terrain, high elevations, rugged ridgetops and thickly forested river bottoms. During the Great Depression in the 1920s and ‘30s, the Wilderness was a place of sanctuary for grizzly bears, as the ranchers down below would often hunt anything they could find in order to feed their families. But today, far fewer grizzlies are found in Bob Marshall Wilderness, as their relationships with the ranchers have changed, and they’ve continued expanding into the ranchlands and beyond.

7 5 21 Bob Marshall Wilderness photo by Kirk OlsonBob Marshall Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Kirk Olson.

“It’s been encouraging to see the grizzlies migrate further and further out in the prairies and into the mountains, expanding and reclaiming their native homeland,” said Madel. “This spring, we had amazing confirmation of a grizzly bear in the snowy mountains that are 100 miles further east than a grizzly bear has ever been recorded. It’s just so promising, and it won’t be long until two populations—NCDE and the Yellowstone population—are connected, which will be important for genetic flow.”

Female grizzly bears, called sows, typically won’t have offspring until they are four or five years old, and then will have a cub or two every few years. However, in recent years, sows have recorded having up to three or four cubs each year—a huge cause for their drastic population growth.

Another key driver to restoring grizzly populations has been ensuring that priority bear habitat isn’t lost to development with conservation easements. We work closely with FWS, The Nature Conservancy, and the State of Montana to protect ecologically and economically valuable land in the region. The work to date could not have been possible without generous contributions from the Richard King Mellon Foundation—which has provided more than $15 million to land conservation efforts in the Rocky Mountain Front—and funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which allows FWS to acquire the conservation easements.

7 5 21 Rappold family ranch photo by Dave HannaKarl Rappold’s family ranch, which was protected with a conservation easement roughly 15 years ago. Photo by Dave Hanna.

At the end of the day, many people in the Rocky Mountain Front region are hopeful to see their beloved grizzly bears thriving and expanding into new terrain. But with growing bear populations comes a growing need for management plans, and experts like Mike Madel and ranchers like Karl Rappold, who are dedicated to seeing the species co-exist with the people who work the land. 

“When I look back at all of it, I think the most rewarding and successful work was habitat conservation,” said Madel. “In the long run, you can do as much as you can to get people to accept grizzly bears. But if bears are losing habitat—and they have lost plenty of it across western North America already—then that’s probably the most rewarding work.”

7 5 21 Crabb Ranch MT c Sprout Films201902119 2 1Crabb Ranch is one of the many ranch families The Conservation Fund has worked with along the Rocky Mountain Front. Photo courtesy of Sprout Films. 

Rappold added, “One of the reasons we did a conservation easement on the ranch was because my dad always wanted to make sure that the grizzly bears were at home on our land.” These conservation easements also gave Mr. Rappold and his family additional flexibility to expand their operations in an economically sustainable way.


You can learn more about our work along the Rocky Mountain Front, and how it impacts not only wildlife like grizzlies, but the livelihood of ranchers like Mr. Rappold and the Crabb family. Check out some additional resources here:

Written By

Valerie Keefer

As Media Relations Associate for The Conservation Fund, Val conducts media outreach, drives press activities and supports messaging strategies across the organization. She enjoys sharing the Fund’s holistic approach to environmental conservation and economic growth with the community and communicating the local and global impact of the Fund’s many projects. Val is an avid nature enthusiast who loves camping, hiking and rock climbing.