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Several grizzly bears reported in northern Bitterroot Valley in August

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Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks report increasing grizzly bear numbers in the valley, an area without an established grizzly population


MISSOULA – Several grizzly bears are spending time in the northern Bitterroot Valley this month, with verified sightings of two bears most recently on the east side of the valley, in the river bottoms and edges of the Sapphire Mountains near Florence and Lolo. 

Although grizzly bears don’t inhabit the Bitterroot Valley in numbers like they do in many other parts of western Montana, grizzlies are dispersing into more places. Activity in the Bitterroot Valley has steadily increased over the past 10 years. 

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear specialist, Jamie Jonkel, said the recent sightings serve as a reminder of the bears’ natural expansion and possibility to be present in more places. 

“We have established populations of grizzly bears to the northwest and southeast of us, so seeing bears moving through the greater Missoula area and Bitterroot is becoming more common,” Jonkel said.

Two sub-adult grizzly bears were first noted in the lower Blackfoot Valley earlier this month before beginning to move south. The Blackfoot sits on the southern end of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, an established population of grizzly bears, and is a fairly typical spot to see grizzlies. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, home to another established population of grizzly bears, sits several hundred miles to the southeast.

After moving out of the Blackfoot, the pair began venturing further south, where it is less common to see grizzlies. FWP linked together a series of sightings, photos, and video, which showed they first crossed Interstate 90 just east of Missoula, near Turah, around Aug. 4. They then traveled south into the Sapphire Mountains and were sighted again near Florence, in the northern Bitterroot Valley, a few days later. 

The bears are believed to be around two years old, which is a natural time for some bears to begin venturing out and exploring new territory.

Although the bears were reported to cross U.S. 93 and spend a little time on the west side of the Bitterroot, they are now believed to be back on the east side of the valley. The grizzlies were most recently seen in the Bitterroot River bottom, just south of Lolo, on Aug. 18. The tracks of a possible third grizzly bear have also been reported in the same area.

Jonkel says that although the bears are active and near human activity enough to be noticed, he hasn’t heard of any conflicts with people or livestock so far. They seem to be exploring but naturally trying to keep their distance.

“We’d like to do all we can to keep it this way,” Jonkel says. “This time of year, our valleys draw bears looking for berries and other food sources. If we can keep them away from unnatural foods like garbage, bird and pet food and other attractants, they’ll hopefully keep on moving along and exploring their natural habitat.”

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