September 23, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
by Mike Thompson,
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder
By Mike Thompson
The first full summer I spent in grizzly country was in 1978, while studying mountain goats on the Rocky Mountain Front, about 60 miles east of the Swan Valley. I had been working alone in the backcountry off and on for two months before I recorded my first sighting of Ursus arctos horribilis. Fortunately, the beast was crossing a high mountain ridge at a distance of about a mile, heading away from me. From this meager evidence, I convinced myself that the bear was clearing out of the country to make room for me, and I felt a great sense of relief that carried me through the remainder of the field season.
Then, as luck would have it, I saw 15 different grizzlies during the course of the next summer and fall.
Whether you bump into the bears or not, you know you are in grizzly country when you live on the east slope of the Rockies in Montana. And, of course, you are aware of grizzly bears if you hike in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, or live in the Swan.
But, many of us have thought of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range and the surrounding low country south of Seeley Lake as a "free zone." It's not that we didn't think a grizzly might pass through on the way to somewhere else. But, in general, FWP was saying that the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range was not occupied by grizzly bears when I first took this job in 1987.
In those days, I hunted for ruffed grouse along Cottonwood Creek without concern. The only penalty I would suffer for letting my guard down and my mind wander was the unanswered flush of a small and harmless game bird.
In the late 1980s, I received reports of a grizzly or two in the Blanchard Creek drainage. In the 1990s, hunters have reported increased sign and sightings of grizzly bears in the front country between the Wilderness boundary and flatlands around Cozy Corner. People have made reliable reports of grizzlies on the Game Range for the last five years or so.
And, chances are excellent that grizzly bears are on the Game Range right now.
While this trend is remarkable, and certainly interesting to talk about, it should come as no surprise. The southern slope of the Swan Range, from The Bob clear down to the Game Range, is naturally satisfactory habitat for silvertips.
Nowadays, I recommend that you carry pepper spray, travel in groups of two or more, make noise, avoid dense thickets, and stay alert for large, fresh, bear droppings or tracks while hiking or hunting on the Game Range. When camping, hang your food, keep food smells out of your tent and keep a clean camp.
In short, don't forget your backcountry bear skills when you come to the Game Range.
Although these precautions merit your consideration in any outdoor location on the Game Range, people should be extra careful along the full length of the Cottonwood Creek basin, where the creek meanders through the Dreyer Ranch and across the old Boyd Ranch to the Game Range headquarters. This wooded, berry laden basin, including Shanley Creek and other minor tributaries of Cottonwood Creek, is a natural feeding area and movement corridor for black and grizzly bears in autumn. This corridor includes the Shanley Creek Block Management Area, on the Bandy Ranch, and all the broad meadows and shrubfields in the general vicinity of the main creek channels.
Grizzly sows with yearling or two-year-old cubs have been in this area this fall. Of course, the point of mentioning this is to emphasize that an encounter with a grizzly bear could be serious if the sow perceives a threat to its young.
People in the Seeley-Swan are used to living with grizzly bears. I guess the "news" is that you can no longer let your guard down when you travel south to the Game Range.