The Bitterroot Ecosystem
Written by Bitterroot Subcommittee
The Bitterroot Ecosystem is one of the largest contiguous blocks of public land remaining in the lower 48 States. The core of the ecosystem contains three Wilderness areas which make up the largest block of wilderness habitat in the Rocky Mountains south of Canada. Of all the remaining unoccupied grizzly bear habitat in the lower 48 States, this area has the best potential for grizzly bear recovery, primarily due to the large core of designated Wilderness areas.
However, grizzly bears do not currently occupy the Bitterroot Ecosystem. The last verified death of a grizzly bear in the Bitterroot occurred in 1932 and the last tracks indicating grizzly bear occupancy were observed in 1946. Although occasional reports of grizzly sightings occur in the Bitterroot, none are verifiable as grizzly bears. There have been two verified reports since 2000 of grizzly bears moving briefly from occupied grizzly bear habitat in western Montana near the western portion of the Bitterroot Ecosystem in Montana. One grizzly was killed and the other disappeared.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan directs grizzly bear recovery be pursued in the Bitterroot Ecosystem, along with the Yellowstone, Northern Continental Divide, Selkirk, Cabinet/Yaak, and North Cascades Ecosystems. The Service prepared an environmental impact statement, and signed a final rule and record of decision to reintroduce a non-essential experimental population of grizzly bears to the Bitterroot in November 2000. In June 2001, the Service reevaluated the decision to reintroduce grizzly bears and published a Notice of Intent and proposed rule to select the “Natural Recovery” alternative which allows for protection of grizzly bears that may move into the Bitterroot from other areas, but does not reintroduce bears. Natural movement of grizzly bears into the Bitterroot Ecosystem may occur and would be supported by the Service. Any such grizzly bears would have full protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Management agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the USDA Forest Service in cooperation with various non-governmental organizations continue to monitor for grizzly bear movement into the Bitterroot Ecosystem. These agencies and organizations in addition to private companies (Simmons Sanitation and BFI) are also taking management actions to increase public awareness of wildlife sanitation issues and black bear/grizzly bear identification techniques and to improve wildlife sanitation within the Bitterroot Ecosystem.
Recovery planning efforts were completed in 2000, but were placed on hold in June 2001. The IGBC vision “to develop a defined course of action toward recovery” will require joint understanding of issues, sharing of knowledge (including new science and results of monitoring), and open communication among agencies, tribes, elected officials, interest groups, and the general public.
You can find more information about this ecosystem on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Grizzly Bear Recovery page. On this page you will find links to the Federal Register announcement of the “Initiation of 5-Year Reviews of Seven Wildlife Species and Two Plant Species in the Mountain-Prairie Region.”