In the fall of 2021, a grizzly bear dubbed “Lingenpolter” by Montana wildlife officials wandered south until he bumped into the traffic on Interstate 90.
Young male bears, known as boars, tend to roam, and Lingenpolter, tracked by a GPS collar, bounced around the highway’s perimeter repeatedly until settling into hibernation. After emerging in the spring, he returned to the task — and finally, after at least 46 attempts, he crossed the road.
The breakthrough made Lingenpolter one of several grizzlies in recent years to bust his way past the formidable obstacles blocking bears from traveling toward the Bitterroot ecosystem, a region that stretches across northern Idaho and a small swath of western Montana.
Grizzly conservationists have long viewed the region as a key area for recovering the keystone species, whose range in the contiguous United States has been reduced to a handful of recovery zones since being listed as “threatened” in the Lower 48 under the Endangered Species Act. But for two decades, the federal government took no action to urge restoration to the Bitterroot, even though the mission to return bears there is written into federal law.
That hands-off policy is quickly changing now that grizzlies are wandering back into the area on their own.
A grizzly bear feeds near a lake at Glacier National Park, which is part of the Northern Continental Divide recovery zone.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started a court-ordered review of its options to restore grizzlies to the Bitterroot ecosystem last month — a victory for wildlife activists that comes as Montana, Idaho and Wyoming push to remove Endangered Species Act protections in their states.
Wildlife officials said Monday night at a livestreamed public meeting that they’re considering options including full-on federal restoration of a new population, occasionally supplementing an existing population with a translocated bear or two, or a modified version of the wait-and-see status quo. Those options won’t be formalized until the end of next year, and the agency doesn’t expect to make a final decision until November 2026.
Whether wildlife officials take drastic action or continue to do pretty much nothing will depend partly on politics, with the 2024 presidential election likely playing a major role. Former President Donald Trump’s administration delisted grizzly bears shortly after taking office, in a move that was later overturned by a federal judge. A second Trump administration would be unlikely to take aggressive action to repopulate the Bitterroot with brown bears.
People who live near grizzlies, which can grow to a whopping 700 pounds and, on rare but devastating occasions, attack humans, sometimes struggle to welcome them as neighbors. In the Northern Rockies, many see the federal restoration of expansive protections for large predators like the grizzly bear as a big government burden on locals that threatens to clash with regional economic drivers like logging, mining, and motorized outdoor recreation.
The return of the Bitterroot as a federal priority for grizzly restoration may also complicate the question of whether to remove Endangered Species Act protections for them in the areas where they’re thriving.
Wildlife advocates like Mike Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the two groups that sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) over its stalled restoration plan, view the Bitterroot as a vital link that promises to join far-flung populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide. Without that link, Garrity says it’s too soon to return grizzlies to state management, which would open the possibility of hunting seasons.
“The Bitterroot is really critical for the recovery of grizzly bears,” Garrity said. “Right now we have isolated populations at risk of inbreeding. To secure the recovery of grizzly bears and eventual removal from the Endangered Species list, we need to have one connected population of grizzly bears in the Lower 48.”
A Tabled Plan
Grizzlies historically ranged across the west, from Alaska to Northern Mexico. They still remain numerous in Canada and occupy almost all of their historic range in Alaska, but their populations in the contiguous United States plummeted following European colonization.
Settlers killed them out of fear for their safety or to protect livestock, while unregulated market hunters sold their hides. Urbanization and roadbuilding shrank habitat for the animals, which typically keep their distance from humans.
By the time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified Lower 48 grizzlies as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, only about 750 of them remained, confined to roughly 2% of their historic range.
Grizzlies have rebounded dramatically, if unevenly, since then. Their remaining habitat in the contiguous United States forms a rough half-crescent running from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, then bending northwest toward the Northern Continental Divide, before continuing along the Canadian border toward the Northern Cascade Mountains of Washington.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental divide each hold around 1,100 bears.
But in four out of the six proposed recovery zones, grizzly populations struggle. The Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk areas both held about 50 bears, as of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s last recovery report in 2021. The North Cascades do not appear to hold grizzly bears at all, though USFWS is currently drafting plans to restore them there.
The Bitterroot boasts some of the most ideal unoccupied habitats. It contains two sprawling wilderness areas, the Frank Church and the Selway-Bitterroot, that combine to form the largest roadless area in the contiguous United States.
“If you look at a map of all the recovery areas, the Bitterroot is the perfect stopover area between the Northern Continental Divide and Yellowstone,” said Michael Dax, author of “Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West.”
Grizzlies were last documented in the Bitterroot in the 20th century in 1947.
After a years-long process of environmental study and public consultation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed off on an experimental plan in the year 2000 to relocate 25 grizzly bears to the Bitterroot.
But when George W. Bush took office the next year, his administration refused to move forward, siding with Republican opponents in Idaho.
For the next two decades, the restoration plan remained a dead letter.
In the meantime, bears slowly started to approach the area without government help. A black bear hunter mistakenly killed a grizzly in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in 2007. Game cameras have picked up several grizzlies around the area in recent years, according to Idaho Fish and Game.
Those that make it don’t appear to stay — likely because the explorers consist mainly of young boars who go back where they came from when they fail to find a mate. Wildlife officials have yet to document a breeding pair.
Still, the scattered return of a small number of grizzlies in recent years has happened far faster than conservationists anticipated when contemplating restoration in the 1990s.
When it became clear that grizzlies were making their way back to the Bitterroot on their own, environmental groups sued to force the government to update its plan. Exemptions allowing timber harvest to continue in grizzly habitat or provisions making it easier to haze or kill grizzlies in self-defense or to protect livestock were all based on section 10(J) of the Endangered Species Act. That section requires an experimental population to be isolated, which no longer appears likely in the Bitterroot.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year to start the whole bureaucratically complicated planning process from scratch.
“In light of dramatically changing circumstances on the ground, the agency can no longer sit on its hands,” Molloy wrote.
Differing Definitions Of ‘Endangered’
Molloy’s ruling handed a major triumph to grizzly advocates like biologist David Mattson, who contends that long-term recovery requires bridging together enough habitat to form a single interbreeding population topping 3,000 bears. Those numbers don’t pencil out without northern Idaho.
“Even if we had seamless connectivity between [the Northern Continental Divide] and [Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem] bears, where they were freely interbreeding, we would still need the Bitterroot to surpass the benchmark,” Mattson said. “What we’re seeing now is considerable grounds for optimism.”
The fact that recolonization is happening naturally also helps skirt the contentious politics of federal restorations, which have become “entangled with the partisan divide and culture wars,” Mattson said.
Still, not all wildlife officials share the view that a bridge to the Bitterroot is necessary to preserve genetic diversity.
The idea that we have [grizzly] bears recovered in two ecosystems in just 40 years is amazing — it took a lot of people pushing in the same direction to get there.Idaho Fish and Game biologist Toby Boudreau
The most isolated grizzly population is the one in Yellowstone, and it’s more likely to receive a migrant from the Northern Continental Divide than from the Bitterroot, said ecologist Frank van Manen of the U.S. Geological Survey, who heads the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. Even if that never happens, humans can relocate bears from elsewhere to maintain genetic diversity.
“For genetic connectivity, you really don’t need that many,” van Manen said. “We’re not in dire straits with the genetics of the Greater Yellowstone.”
Still, a robust Bitterroot population would only help grizzly conservation, van Manen added. Higher numbers of bears in connected ecosystems would make the species more resilient in the face of disease or ongoing habitat encroachment from humans.
Idaho Fish and Game bear biologist Toby Boudreau agreed, noting that contention over the future of grizzly bears can obscure the fact that the species has made a spectacular recovery.
“The idea that we have [grizzly] bears recovered in two ecosystems in just 40 years is amazing — it took a lot of people pushing in the same direction to get there,” Boudreau said. “I think natural connectivity is ideal, but not necessary. This Bitterroot thing has been off the table for decades now, but we’ve still been managing bears and people have been pushing for delisting.”
Grizzly activists, however, view the prospect of delisting skeptically. Population pressure is what pushes young bears like Lingenpolter to strike out in search of new territory. If state management were to result in less population pressure, fewer bears may feel compelled to explore the outer fringes of their range.
“If those protections are lifted, that fundamentally changes the context for what happens in the Bitterroot,” Mattson said. “The source of colonists will be cut off.”
For now, however, grizzly bear champions are getting a taste of what they’ve spent the last two decades hoping for.
“Our proposal was always to let grizzlies come back on their own,” Garrity said. “And that’s what they’re doing.”