The Bitterroot Ecosystem, or Recovery Zone, is centered in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in western Montana and northeastern Idaho. The heart of the zone is in Idaho, and about 250,000 acres extend eastward into Montana. The overall zone features 6 million acres of unoccupied habitat, making it 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. This area has the best potential for grizzly bear recovery, primarily due to the large core of designated Wilderness areas.
Grizzly bears are not confirmed to currently reside in the ecosystem. The Bitterroot Recovery Zone 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.
The US Fish & Wildlife Service approved a plan to reintroduce an experimental non-essential population of grizzly bears in the Bitterroot in 2000. In 2001, the Secretary of the Interior halted the plan as the agency’s strategy shifted to allowing bears to naturally migrate into the ecosystem.
Grizzly bears in the Bitterroot remain relatively uncommon, compared to parts of northwest Montana, but there have been increasing reports in recent years.
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.
The U.S. Fish and 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 and Wildlife Service, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Montana 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, 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.
The Bitterroot Ecosystem Subcommittee meets biannually to coordinate grizzly bear recovery efforts.