Bitterroot Ecosystem Map
Map courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The Bitterroot Ecosystem[1] is the larger area surrounding the Recovery Zone, which is centered in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in western Montana and northeastern Idaho. The Bitterroot Recovery Zone encompasses approximately 5,830 square miles, making it one of the largest contiguous blocks of public land remaining in the lower-48 States. The core of the ecosystem contains two Wilderness areas, which make up the largest block of wilderness habitat in the Rocky Mountains south of Canada. This area has the best potential for grizzly bear recovery, primarily due to the large core of designated Wilderness areas.

There is no known grizzly bear population[2] in the ecosystem. Grizzly bears in the Bitterroot Ecosystem remain relatively uncommon, compared to parts of northwest Montana, but there have been increasing reports in recent years.

The Bitterroot Ecosystem is historic grizzly country and the animals were abundant when Lewis and Clark traveled through the area in 1806. 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.

In 2007, a black-bear hunter mistakenly killed a 400-pound male grizzly bear in Idaho’s Clearwater drainage, just north of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. DNA evidence linked the bear to the Selkirk Ecosystem in northern Idaho and eastern Washington. In late 2018, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks captured a young male grizzly bear on a golf course north of Stevensville along the Bitterroot River. The bear was relocated to the southern edge of the Northern Continental Divide.  In 2019, a collared male from the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem travelled south of I-90 and spent about two months moving around the Bitterroot Ecosystem before heading back north into the Cabinet Mountains to den in October.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife 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.

Management agencies, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Montana Fish, Wildlife & 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 organizations, 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.

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.

For more information, visit the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Grizzly Bear Recovery page.

[1] The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has not defined ecosystem boundaries for any of the ecosystems across the lower-48 States.

[2] A population is defined as two or more reproductive females or one female reproducing during two separate years.

Bitterroot Ecosystem Subcommittee

The Bitterroot Ecosystem Subcommittee meets biannually to coordinate grizzly bear recovery efforts.