For evidence of a growing grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, look no farther than the community of Red Lodge at the base of the Beartooth Mountains.
Since 1976, Shawn Stewart has been the wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in the community known for its world-famous, winding highway that climbs to 11,000 feet over the Beartooths on its way to Yellowstone National Park.
"For the first 20 years, we couldn't verify grizzly bear use on the Beartooth Face at all," Stewart said. "And I chased down all the rumors. I could never verify reports. That's not a problem anymore."
Now, grizzly bear observations have doubled every year for the past three years along the southeastern base of the Beartooths, he said.
"Last year by the time they denned, we had pretty well identified grizzly bears in every major drainage of the Beartooths," Stewart said. "Certainly that's never happened."
On Tuesday, FWP euthanized a 200 pound, 3-year-old male grizzly bear that had been captured in a foot snare after killing one sheep recently, then returning to the same ranch and killing seven more sheep and wounding two others a few days later. The attacks occurred in a holding pen at a ranch north of Highway 78 near Red Lodge Creek, not far from the small community of Luther. FWP wouldn't identify the landowner. "He was out in what we would all consider grazing and agricultural land," said Kevin Frey, FWP's bear management specialist in Bozeman. "He was beyond what we consider some of that ordinary conservation management area."
The bear was a three-time offender, twice captured and relocated in Wyoming's South Fork of the Shoshone River drainage near Cody.
Those incidents — in October 2011 and September 2012 — involved the bear, its mother and sibling raiding livestock feed at a ranch. After the second capture, the bears were relocated farther south in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Given the previous incidents, the decision to kill the bear was made in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees grizzly bear management, since the animals are listed as an endangered species.
The young male bear had traversed a fair bit of rough country to get to Red Lodge since its last relocation, passing towns and homes, crossing highways, rivers, roads and streams. "Odds are that bear made it up north last fall," Frey said, adding that he didn't think it could have made the entire trek this spring. "It was a heck of a movement."
Why did the bear move so far? Young male bears are typically looking for new, unoccupied territory. But there may be another reason, as well. "I think one of the big things going on is the last two years, we've had outstanding whitebark pine production compared to the rest of the ecosystem," Stewart said. "And the bears move a long way to capitalize on those things."
Whitebark pine trees produce high-protein seeds that the bears love. But in other respects, the Beartooth Face doesn't have a lot of grizzly bear food sources, Stewart said. There aren't as many elk, and the riparian areas aren't as lush with vegetation.
The young male grizzly was the fourth one FWP has euthanized in the Red Lodge area. Two were euthanized last year, including an adult female that was killing cattle in the Bear Creek area, captured in September, and a young male that was killing cattle, trapped in late June. Both had been previously captured in Wyoming and relocated. All of those incidents occurred south of Red Lodge.
"Most of our activity and the biggest concentration of bears is between here and Clark, the east face," Stewart said. "In the Beartooths, that's the highest density of bears we have.
"And the interesting thing is, it's usually males that are the problem but we've had primarily females with different-aged cubs. That's been the amazing thing to me."
The latest estimates put the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosytem at about 700 animals. Across that ecosystem, Stewart said the number of male grizzly bears has been on the rise to the point that the population now is almost evenly divided between males and females.
Given the large number of bears, though, there have been few problems.
"Realistically, we've had a lot of bears (between the Wyoming state line and Red Lodge) in the last three years — between 25 and 30, and there's been two or three of them causing trouble. The rest of them are reasonably good citizens," Stewart said.
"If you can keep them from getting human food sources, those are the things that cause you trouble."