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From Idaho to Montana, Ethyl the bear rambled 2,800 miles

Editor’s note:This story is part of the Lee Enterprises series "Grizzlies and Us." The project examines the many issues surrounding the uneasy coexistence of grizzly bears and humans in the Lower 48, which have come more into focus in recent years as the federally-protected animal pushes farther into human-occupied areas. The 10-part series, comprised of more than 20 stories, was produced by reporters and photojournalists across the Rocky Mountain West. This story also contains an excerpt from “The Grizzly in the Driveway: The Return of Bears to a Crowded American West” by Robert Chaney, author and long-time reporter for the Missoulian.

The roomful of biologists had lots of funny ideas why Ethyl the grizzly bear logged 2,800 miles arcing from Coeur d’Alene past Florence and Missoula and eventually up to Eureka by way of Glacier National Park.

Was she was looking for someone she couldn’t find? Maybe she ate a bad chicken and took a long time to walk off the indigestion. She had Alzheimer’s and couldn’t trace her way back to her home range northeast of Bigfork—one place she noticeably skipped in her three-year ramble across Montana and Idaho.

“The one thing we can say is this was not representative of normal bear movement, and certainly not female grizzly bear movement,” said US Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator Chris Servheen in 2014. “She had some really bizarre travels.”

Here’s one more thing we can say about Ethyl. The twenty-year-old sow demonstrated that grizzly bears can cross interstate highways, major city boundaries, municipal landfills, and residential backyards without getting in trouble with humans. She added hope that the big omnivores can coexist with people as their populations pooch out of their wilderness core habitat.

Ethyl spent most of her life around Montana’s Lake Blaine, between the tourist town of Bigfork and the Swan Mountains. After game wardens captured her while raiding an apple orchard, she was relocated to the Wounded Buck Creek drainage along Hungry Horse Reservoir.

She returned with a two-year-old cub in tow and got busted again in the apples in 2012. This time, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear specialist Rick Mace gave her a satellite-linked radio collar before hauling her and her cub to the more remote Puzzle Creek drainage, hard against the Continental Divide south of Marias Pass.

And then Ethyl took off.

She prowled around the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex for a while, including a few peeks at the eastern Rocky Mountain Front between Lincoln and Augusta. Then she drifted down to the Mission Mountains and the Jocko Lakes area. Passing Arlee, she cleared Highway 93 and headed for the northern fringe of the Bitterroot Mountains.

That meant hopping the Interstate 90 corridor, the biggest single barrier to reunification of the two biggest grizzly ecosystems remaining in the Lower 48 states. Ethyl braved the four-lane freeway and headed west into Idaho.

She may have crossed I-90 several times as she explored the mountains around Kellogg and Wallace until she reached the city limits of Coeur d’Alene. A December 15 Kellogg newspaper article printed an Ethyl sighting about ten miles from the high school. She made a den somewhere in the Idaho Panhandle and hibernated through the 2012–13 winter.

If the story ended here, Ethyl would still warrant a chapter to herself in the bear biology books. Grizzly home ranges average seventy square miles for females and from two hundred to four hundred miles for males. Sow grizzlies rarely travel more than eight and a half miles into new country each year. One of Ethyl’s fellow grizzly moms in the Mission Mountains alongside the Flathead Indian Reservation had a home range of three square miles, from mountainside den site down to a boggy basin where she foraged all summer.

Ethyl’s collar went dormant to conserve battery power on November 25, 2012. It revived the following March, showing her moving back east along Interstate 90. She cruised past Superior, Montana, then straight up and over several steep drainages between I-90 and US Highway 12. She reached the southern fringe of Missoula on May 13. In a short day, she zipped through the Blue Mountain Recreation Area and then south a dozen miles to Lolo. She probed the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains as far south as Florence.

“On May 20, she goes basically right through downtown Lolo and we didn’t have any sightings,” Servheen said. “She was minding her own business, walking around trying to figure out where she is.”

Ten days later, she shot back into Idaho as far as Coeur d’Alene, as if she remembered she’d left something back at the den. Then she turned around, and safely crossed Interstate 90 again to return to Missoula. She went right past the city’s landfill but only sniffed the garbage. She cruised some apple orchards in the meadows east of Evaro Hill. That fall, elk hunters spotted her eating the gut piles they left behind. Each night that fall, she’d pad four miles back to the Rattlesnake Wilderness north of Missoula to sleep.

Then she barged north up the Bob Marshall again, bypassing her Lake Blaine denning site, and headed for Glacier Park. After some time there, Ethyl moved west toward Eureka on the western edge of the NCDE. She lost her collar on October 17, 2014.

“That’s a total distance of two thousand eight hundred miles,” Servheen said. “The only place she didn’t go in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem was the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.”

Ethyl’s ramble capsulizes the problem grizzlies present to those who want to recover them. They won’t—can’t—stay still.

Let’s start with food. While technically carnivores, grizzly bears come as close to vegetarian as anything with fangs. In some places, grizzlies subsist on almost 90 percent plant matter, supplemented by bugs and the occasional carrion buffet. Those five-inch claws and shoulder humps of muscle get a lot more use digging up roots and ant hills than dismembering elk.

To meet that need, grizzlies have learned to follow a green wave of plant regeneration through the growing season. As soon as they arise from their dens, they look for two things: a shot of protein from some winterkilled fellow mammal and a meadow full of new clover. They often find both in the runout zones of avalanche chutes.

As spring days lengthen, the bears start digging up the carbohydrate-loaded bases of plants like biscuit root, yampa, glacier lily, and wild onion. This serves until the plants reach flowering stage, whereupon the nutritional value of the roots fades. Bears move up and down in altitude, following the retreat of winter snowpack and the aspects of changing sunshine to fresh growth.

When summer sets in, bears look for berries and other fruit. Where possible, they sniff out middens of whitebark pine seeds buried by industrious but forgetful squirrels. In some remarkable spots in the Mission Mountains and the Beartooth Plateau, they climb near the summits of ten-thousand-foot mountain peaks to find the breeding sites of army cutworm moths and ladybugs. They shred rotten logs to dig out ant colonies, and yes, they do raid beehives for honey.

The claws and teeth do get put to more presumptive uses. In May and June, Yellowstone bears zigzag through meadow edges hoping to scare up elk calves (which are born virtually scentless, so bears hunt for them by sight). A rare bear may hunt and kill a bison, elk, or deer. More often, that offensive weaponry goes to chasing off wolves that have already brought down a big meal with their more effective pack-hunting methods. The reintroduction of wolves in the mid-1990s had a marked benefit on bear populations in Yellowstone Park.

Nevertheless, there’s no one-stop shopping. What’s the nutritional value of fighting for a berry patch before the berries have ripened? Male grizzlies in particular do not share, and will attack virtually anything that impinges on their meal of the moment. But they’re moving through that habitat like we cruise the farmer’s market, picking up fast-sprouting lettuce at one stall in April and ignoring another until the good tomatoes appear in August.

When she dropped her satellite-connected Argos collar in 2014, Ethyl disappeared from active research. However, the lopsided ‘W’ she traced across the maps of Montana and Idaho continues to tantalize her human overseers.

If she’d gone twenty miles farther west of Eureka, Ethyl would have tagged three recovery ecosystems. And if she settled in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, fireworks would have gone off in Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters.

Forty years previous, that office braced for more of an implosion. As Dick Knight, the original leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team put it, “Every grizzly bear carries our society inside him like a bomb, a ticking bomb, already well advanced toward blowing him off the face of the earth, and continuing relentlessly to tick toward ignition unless we intervene to disarm it.”

Before Knight took the job in 1973, perhaps six hundred grizzlies remained alive south of the Canadian border. The 1975 ESA designation listed all grizzlies in the Lower 48 states—a single population destined to subdivide into a legal quagmire.


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