MISSOULA- While much of the debate over grizzly bear recovery is focused on Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide, state, and federal agencies continue to discuss bears returning to the Bitterroot Range along the Montana-Idaho border.

And while there are no “active” reintroduction plans, it appears the growing bear populations in the Northern Rockies are moving that direction anyway.

It’s country just made for grizzlies. The Bitterroot Range extends for more than 400 miles along the Idaho-Montana border, encompassing the rocky peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains themselves and ending in the windswept high country of the Beaverhead and Centennial ranges to the south. It’s some of the emptiest territory in the Northern Rockies but generally considered “grizzly free.”

However, that could be changing.

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“There have certainly been some sightings, some evidence of grizzly bears in the Big Hole area,” said Kim Nelson with the Salmon-Challis National Forest. “Which is exciting because that means that they are definitely moving into that area.”

Nelson briefed members of the Executive Committee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee during its annual meeting this week in Missoula. She told her colleagues that efforts are still underway to verify those random sightings. But the approach remains that grizzlies must “immigrate” on their own into the Bitterroot. They won’t be moved there.

“There are no plans to re-introduce them into that area,” Nelson said. “What we’re hoping is that we’re going to start seeing more and more evidence, and so that’s really where the subcommittee is headed with that research and planned actions.”

The focus is to use remote cameras, including some already placed to track fisher populations, to secure proof grizzlies are back in the Bitterroot and the Selway and Frank Church Wilderness areas.

“We’re looking at the Sapphires and the Fish Creek units, in particular, that we’re hoping to gain that work,” Nelson said. “We’ve deployed a hundred and twenty remote cameras in the North Fork of the Lochsa on the Clear-Nez.”

Researchers also hope to focus on the I-90 corridor, which bears must cross if they are to connect between the Northern Divide and Yellowstone.

“Again, those areas that we’re looking to taking planned action on are the Lower Clark Fork and also the Nine Mile area,” Nelson said. “Which are pretty high probability of bears moving into those areas.”

And Nelson says, regardless of how long it takes for grizzlies to return to the Bitterroot, wildlife managers are anxious to start with education now, getting a jump on some of the human-bear conflicts we’ve seen elsewhere.

“When we’re starting to see the population move in, we’ve got to start educating people on what this means, what this is all going to entail.”

National Forest managers are also taking grizzly movement into account as they develop their new Forest Travel Plans.

-Dennis Bragg reporting for MTN News

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