Ninemile Grizzly incident
a lesson for all of us

Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder


July 19, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson

Helmville ranchers, Brent and Stacey Mannix, might have hoped to surprise a variety of wildlife species during their float down the Blackfoot River a couple of weeks ago.

But, they were the ones surprised at the sight of a small grizzly bear swimming from ranch to ranch near Cedar Meadows Fishing Access Site, southeast of Ovando.

Folks, everyone within the core circulation area of this newspaper lives within suitable habitat that is now occupied, or occasionally visited, by grizzly bears. If this is news to you, and you have not experienced a close encounter with a grizzly bear in your neighborhood, it is probably because you, your neighbors and your local bear population have achieved a delicate balance that has kept the bears out of sight and out of mind.

Last month, people living in the Ninemile Valley, west of Missoula, learned what can happen when that balance is disrupted.

Jamie Jonkel, our Region 2 bear specialist, was the point person for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) in dealing with the Ninemile incident. Much of the information that follows is quoted directly from Jamie's incident report, and provides a real world example of the problems we face as an agency and a society in managing grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states.

On June 1, FWP received the first report of a grizzly bear feeding on garbage and dog food at a residence in the Ninemile area. The bear had visited the house several times. FWP visited the site, interviewed the neighbors, and verified by observing tracks and photographs that the bear was indeed a grizzly.

Grizzly bears frequent the area, but this was the first in recent memory that habituated to garbage in the Ninemile Valley. According to Art Sukla, bear manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, a female grizzly had been observed for the previous three to four years north of Sleeping Woman Peak, above Valley Creek. It was probably one of her offspring, now known as the Ninemile Grizzly, that found its way to garbage at the Ninemile residence.

After talking with personnel at the Ninemile Ranger District, FWP became aware of circumstances that may have set the Ninemile Grizzly on its course to ruin. Upwards of 600 mushroom pickers had moved into the upper Ninemile drainage in May to take advantage of a bumper crop of wild morrels resulting from the Fires of 2000. Three to four bears had regularly visited garbage in the camps of the mushroom pickers. The Ninemile District had implemented a garbage removal program and installed toilets at the bigger camps, but the sanitation problem was beyond the District's control. FWP suspects that this is how the Ninemile Grizzly first became conditioned to human food.

FWP met with the local community on the evening of June 3 and discussed grizzly bear ecology and safety. The bear remained in the area, and several individuals stated that they would shoot the bear if it came onto their property. (The grizzly is protected under the federal endangered species act as a "threatened.") The decision was made to live-trap the bear. On June 7, the subadult male grizzly was captured in a culvert trap, fitted with a neck collar and ear transmitter, and relocated to the Ninemile/Reservation Divide, near Sleeping Woman Peak. During the release, the bear was aversively conditioned with cracker shells and riot rounds in hopes that it would learn to avoid humans in the future.

Throughout the second week of June, the bear stayed in lower Valley Creek. On two occasions, the bear raided a chicken coop on a property near the confluence of the Jocko River. The bear was again aversively conditioned with cracker shells and riot rounds, but was not captured.

On June 17, the bear moved back to the Ninemile and Sixmile drainages and remained in the area until June 30. On two occasions the bear was located adjacent to Interstate 90. During this time, the bear was monitored constantly and aversively conditioned on three occasions. The bear continued to exhibit human food conditioned behavior, which was officially deemed unacceptable under guidelines followed by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. The decision was made to remove the bear.

On June 26, FWP arranged for a second community meeting. After the meeting, it was very obvious that the local community was divided on how the situated should be handled.

The Ninemile and Sixmile communities have severe bear attractant problems, which are not uncommon in western Montana. At least 12 to 14 black bears in this area are currently conditioned to human food. While following the Ninemile Grizzly from residence to residence, FWP learned where the bear was finding food rewards. He ate compost, livestock feeds, grease, table scraps, dog food, bird seed and on two occasions found open dumps containing several truck loads of kitchen garbage.

On July 1, the Ninemile Grizzly swam the Clark Fork River and crossed Interstate 90. On July 5, the bear was found 30 miles downstream near Superior, MT. During his trip, the bear ripped open another chicken coop, sought out garbage, and entered an enclosed porch and approached a woman while she was watching television.

On July 6, FWP personnel shot and killed the Ninemile Grizzly seven miles southeast of Superior.

The example of the Ninemile Grizzly brings many issues to mind, the scope of which are not limited only to grizzly bears. I will leave you to consider these, because there's not enough space in Gary's entire newspaper to address them here. Many are issues that we must work through as a society, toward solutions that cannot be predetermined by FWP or any other agency.

In the meantime, as Jamie would say, "Be bear aware!"