Highway 93 proving to be a tough crossing for grizzly bears

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A grizly bear in a berry patch in the Great Bear Wilderness in this file photo.

Grizzly bears sometimes leave the Mission Mountains and cross U.S. 93 along a roughly 13-mile stretch of the highway north of St. Ignatius.

They tend to follow riparian zones along Post Creek and Crow Creek in an area known for wetlands and waterfowl habitat.

Sometimes the grizzlies make it across the highway and sometimes they collide with vehicles and die.

The year 2018 was a bad year for grizzlies trying to cross U.S. 93. Six deaths were documented, said Stacy Courville, a wildlife biologist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The dead included a sow grizzly and two cubs killed simultaneously.

On Tuesday, Courville, a member of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem Subcommittee on grizzly bears, talked about the deaths of bears on the Flathead Indian Reservation along stretches of U.S. 93 where wildlife crossings have not yet been established as they have elsewhere on the reservation.

Courville was joined in this discussion by Joe Weigand, a Missoula District biologist for the Montana Department of Transportation.

Weigand just became a member of the subcommittee and there was general agreement during the group’s meeting Tuesday in Kalispell about the rightness of including a biologist from the transportation department in discussions about grizzly bears as the animals expand their range.

For grizzlies to move between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem will require crossing interstate highways. Some experts say connectivity between these two populations of bears is necessary for genetic diversity.

The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem includes Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, portions of the Flathead and Blackfeet reservations, parts of five national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands and state and private lands.

Estimates suggest this ecosystem supports about 1,000 grizzlies.

In separate locations last year within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, the deaths of 11 other grizzly bears were attributed to collisions with vehicles.

As it turned out, 2018 notched a record number of grizzly bear “mortalities” throughout the ecosystem. The total of 51 mortalities included bears that were killed in various ways and bears that were relocated out of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

The subcommittee that met Tuesday in Kalispell has worked to develop a conservation strategy for the grizzly in this ecosystem in preparation for the animal’s possible delisting from the Endangered Species list. For now, the grizzly is considered a threatened species in the Lower 48 states.

Roughly 60 people attended the meeting at the Hilton Garden Inn, a tally that included 17 subcommittee members or advisers.

Jeff Mow, superintendent of Glacier National Park, served as chairman.

Committee advisers Hilary Cooley of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Cecily Costello of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, talked about ways grizzlies have died in the region since 1975, with causes of death ranging from poaching to bears preying on livestock to mistaken identity during black bear hunting season and more.

About 13 percent of the grizzly deaths between 1975 and 2018 were attributed to bears being struck by vehicles or trains, Costello said.

Meanwhile, Weigand said he anticipates the Montana Department of Transportation will continue to work with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to try to create structures along U.S. 93 north of St. Ignatius that might help reduce bear mortalities and collisions with vehicles.

The tribes, the Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration and others incorporated 41 wildlife crossing structures during a rebuild of 56 miles of U.S. 93 from 2004 to 2010.

Data show that tens of thousands of animals have used the wildlife structures since then to cross U.S. 93, reducing wildlife mortalities and threats to public safety from collisions.

Weigand said the area between St. Ignatius and Ronan, a stretch of highway bordered by portions of the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, poses engineering challenges for creating wildlife structures because of wetlands and water bodies.

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