Living with grizzlies has always been a natural part of life on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains, and ranchers have had to continually come up with ways to keep their livestock and families safe. Unfortunately, there’s no way to keep livestock 100 percent protected from hungry bears.
Over the course of just four weeks, one particular grizzly has ravaged cattle up and down the Front, from Teton County to Pondera County and back again, killing at least 13 calves and one cow on four different ranches.
“These are kills that were found,” Mike Hoggan, Montana USDA Wildlife Services, said. “I’m sure that bear killed more.”
According to Hoggan, the killing spree began Sept. 7, when a 1,400 pound cow was found killed 20 miles west of Dupuyer. Game cameras were set up, but no traps were set because the Strawberry Fire was looming (the ranch was evacuated just days later) and it wasn’t safe to try to catch the culprit. A grizzly was caught on camera near the kill, and that photo was saved for future reference.
Hoggan said he received the next report of dead calves Sept. 19 a few miles southeast of the first location, and upon responding found that four heifer calves had been killed a few days before, but there was too much bear activity in the area to try to trap the guilty one.
“It was a bad place to try to trap,” Hoggan said. “You could trap some of them, but not all, and they could easily come out of the brush by the trap and attack.”
The ranch manager had game cameras set up in the location, and Hoggan put up some of his own as well, and those cameras recorded at least nine different bears feeding on the carcasses.
“With all those bears feeding on the carcasses, it was impossible to know which one was the culprit,” Hoggan explained.
Hoggan and the ranchers searched the area, finding four calves that were confirmed kills. The remains of six other calves were found, but it was impossible to verify that they were killed. They were written up by Wildlife Services as probable kills.
“The only way we located the ones we found was because of the birds,” Hoggan said. “The brush was very thick.”
The next call to come in was just four days later on Sept. 23 from a rancher a few miles east of the second location, who reported the discovery of a dead steer calf. Unfortunately, Hoggan was unable to snare the bear because of the amount of dog activity around the carcass.
“It looked as though the dogs ran the bear off the first night and it did not return,” Hoggan said.
Finally, Hoggan received a call the afternoon of Sept. 28 from a rancher 20 miles west of Dupuyer reporting yet another dead steer calf. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to catch the grizzly, Hoggan drove to the ranch that evening to set a snare.
“He most definitely had to be captured, and the first night is the best chance,” Hoggan explained. “After that, multiple bears will show up this time of year.”
Hoggan put up a “pen set,” in which he encircled the dead calf with snow fence and set two snares in the opening.
“One (snare) is usually enough,” Hoggan explained. “But I set two to double my chances of catching him.”
Hoggan said the rancher checked the set at daylight on Saturday, Sept. 30 and found the bear, a 575-pound boar, caught in the first snare.
“A bear that had been caught like this before wouldn’t have fallen for it,” Hoggan explained. “But as luck would have it, this was a first time capture.”
Hoggan then contacted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Grizzly Biologist Mike Madel and assistant Kim Shields, and together they tranquilized the grizzly and took biological measurements such as weight and claw length. Inspection of the grizzly also confirmed that he was in fact the same bear Hoggan caught on his game camera at the first kill site.
“This bear was definitely responsible for this calf, as well as the cow that was killed earlier,” Hoggan explained. “But it’s entirely possible that there could be another bear killing besides this one. As many bears as there are out there, there is a possibility this might not completely end it.”
Hoggan recommended to all area ranchers that they stay diligent, and continue to pay close attention to their herds.
After taking measurements, the grizzly was loaded into a culvert trap for transport, and the custody of the bear was transferred from USDA Wildlife Services to FWP, and was transported to the FWP facility in Choteau, where it was given water and held until a decision could be made on euthanasia, which came in Monday morning.
“The decision to euthanize was delayed because of the weekend. It was hard to get hold of people,” Madel explained. “But even if it had been relocated it would have been held until today (Monday).”
Madel said the decision to euthanize was a joint effort between himself, Hoggan, and Wayne Kasworm of US Fish and Wildlife Services.
“We are obligated to the interagency guidelines, but we have the flexibility to remove the bear on a first capture,” Madel explained. “There was no doubt that this was the bear involved (with the kill at the snare site).”
The bear, estimated to be six to eight years old, was humanely euthanized by Madel on Monday morning at the FWP field facility in Choteau, and transported to Great Falls Taxidermy to be skinned.
To report a livestock depredation, contact Mike Hoggan at (406) 289-0492.
For any other grizzly related issues west of Highway 89, contact Mike Madel at (406)788-4755 or Kim Shields at (406) 599-7084.
For grizzly related issues east of Highway 89, contact Wesley Sarmento at (406) 450-1097.