A bear named Irene

Grizzlies make a tenuous comeback in Montana’s Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.

  • Irene, officially known as Bear 286, was instrumental to the success of the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem grizzly augmentation program. Relocated from British Columbia in 1993, she eventually bore nine cubs. In 2009, a camera trap captured this image of Irene with two yearlings. The line across the middle of the frame is barbed wire meant to snag bear fur to be used for DNA testing; the pile of sticks between the young bears hides a lure.

    Wayne Kasworm/USFWS
 

On July 14, 1993, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crew trapped a 2-year-old female grizzly bear in British Columbia's Flathead Valley, a wild river-carved lowland just northwest of Glacier National Park. Officially, the 80-pound grizzly was designated Bear 286. Unofficially, the crew named her Irene.

The team fitted Irene with a radio-collar, packed her onto a truck and drove 150 miles through the night to the Cabinet Mountains, a rugged swath of snow-covered peaks and conifer forests tucked in Montana's northwest corner. The next morning, biologist Wayne Kasworm turned Irene loose near Lost Girl Creek.

Rarely had such great expectations been pinned on a single animal. Irene had been designated one of the involuntary saviors of the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, a 2,600-square-mile region on the Montana-Idaho border abutting Canada. It's one of six designated recovery zones in the Lower 48 where the federal government aims to protect or boost threatened grizzlies. While some recovery zones, like the lands around Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, supported growing populations, bears in the Cabinet-Yaak were spiraling toward extinction. Kasworm estimated that only 15 bears roamed the Cabinets.

Kasworm believed the only way to save the population was to supplement it with more grizzlies. The strategy, called augmentation, made biological sense, but it was politically contentious. The same year Irene moved to the Cabinet Mountains, a biologist who hoped to transplant bears to Washington's North Cascades was spat on at a public meeting. "Nobody had ever moved bears to bolster a population before the Cabinet-Yaak program," Kasworm recalls. "Obviously, it was a controversial idea."

Today, though, the strategy appears to have paid off: According to a recent DNA study, around 45 grizzlies now reside in the Cabinet-Yaak. Once on the verge of vanishing, the population is nearly halfway to 100 – the threshold at which it would be deemed no longer at risk.

The bears' persistence gives scientists hope that the Cabinet-Yaak could someday serve as a node of connection for isolated pockets of grizzlies throughout the Rockies. Yet that optimism is tempered by serious challenges, none greater than keeping bears alive in a landscape shared with humans.

In 1987, when Kasworm first floated the idea of transplanting bears to the Cabinet Mountains, locals responded with suspicion. Previous recovery efforts had been blamed for the region's floundering timber economy and the closure of backcountry roads. "When I was a kid, people would drive up to our house excited because they'd seen a bear," says Bruce Vincent, a logger whose family has lived around Libby, a town of 2,700 that's the Cabinet-Yaak's largest population center, since 1904. "But attitudes changed. The bears became 'goddamned grizzly bears.' "

Vincent wasn't opposed to augmentation, but he and the USFWS agreed that locals deserved a voice in how it was implemented. He and other community leaders, including elected officials and timber and mining industry representatives, created a committee to guide the plan. Kasworm agreed to delay relocation to hold meetings and modify the program.

Finally, the committee consented to a conservative experiment: Starting in 1990, Fish and Wildlife would relocate four young females over a five-year period. If the bears stuck around and reproduced, the augmentation would proceed. If not, it would be years before the scientists got another shot. "That citizens committee was how we were able to pull this off," Kasworm says.

Initially, though, the bears didn't cooperate: The first shed her radio-collar and disappeared, and the second was found dead just a year after being released. Irene, however, survived and stayed out of trouble. Kasworm gave biweekly updates on her whereabouts on a local radio show.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • 10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.