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ALDER — John Anderson never actually saw it. He first heard about it from someone at the garnet mine. They told him there was a huge grizzly bear track behind the mine, which is next to the home place for the Ruby Dell Ranch.

Anderson, 67, runs the ranch with his brother. It is split between four units scattered across southwestern Montana. He grew up on the home place, a chunk of about 4,000 acres off the foothills of the Greenhorn Range. He never had reason to believe there would be a grizzly bear nearby.

“That’s the first time ever,” Anderson said.

It was spring 2017, and the signs started adding up. About the same time, a cow carcass had been dragged out of a creek bottom. A water trough was busted up, too, like something large got stuck inside and had to break out.

And then there was the night the heifers went crazy.

An employee who lives near a corral where they keep a group of cattle told Anderson they were “just raising hell in the middle of the night.” When they woke up the next morning, a stretch of jackleg fence had been knocked over. The cows had run straight through it.

“Luckily there wasn’t any casualties or broken bones or anything,” Anderson said. “We figured it must have been that bear that had gotten into those cattle and spooked them.”

The bear was later seen crossing the highway that connects the Ruby Valley to Ennis. Definitely a grizzly, maybe 3 or 4 years old. Nobody’s sure where it went next — maybe the Tobacco Root Mountains, maybe back toward the Gravelly Range. But its appearance in the valley bottom had already made it a pioneer.

Grizzly bears in both the Yellowstone ecosystem and in the Northern Continental Divide, around Glacier National Park, have been showing up in new places. It’s a phenomenon that’s encouraging to those who want to see genetic connectivity between the two populations.

But it’s also forcing the people on the fringes of the two ecosystems to think about how they’ll live with grizzly bears in the future, and how they’ll try to prevent the conflicts between humans and bears, conflicts that often end with bears getting killed.

The Expansion

Anderson’s father and grandfather ran sheep in the Ruby drainage, including on open range land in the Gravelly Range. Grizzly bears weren’t much of a concern back then, but just about everything else was — coyotes, black bears, bald eagles.

They decided to focus on the cattle business in the early 1970s. Now, between the four units of the ranch, they run about 1,200 cows.

Meanwhile, grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem were struggling. When the species was first listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, estimates put their number at fewer than 150. Most stayed inside the park, or at least close to it.

Now, official government estimates put the total above 700. After the numbers started growing, grizzly bears started moving into new places. According to an article in a 2015 issue of Yellowstone Science, the species’ occupied range roughly tripled from the late 1970s to 2010.

Kevin Frey, a bear biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said expansion in the early-to-mid 2000s ramped up in the Centennial Mountains and the Gravelly Range, the ranges west of the Madison River.

“Every year, there were more and more reports of a grizzly observation or a grizzly encounter or a grizzly seen feeding on a carcass,” Frey said.

Now, the grizzly abundance in the two ranges is well known. Andy Peterson, a herdsman for the Ruby Dell Ranch, spends summers with cows and grizzly bears in the southern end of the Gravelly Range. He said the number of sightings has increased substantially. That can lead to conflict — in 2017, his 15th summer there, they lost three cows to grizzly bears.

“You never know where you’re going to run into them up there,” he said.

Some argue the bears are expanding their range because there’s not enough food for them in the core part of the ecosystem. Frank van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, disagrees. He said it’s about breathing room.

“What is driving it is really higher bear densities in the core,” van Manen said.

The same thing is happening in northwestern Montana. Bears from both the Yellowstone area and northwestern Montana have been seen within 70 miles of the other ecosystem, meaning there could come a time when the two populations intermix. Some bear advocates argue that genetic connectivity is essential to the survival of the Yellowstone population, which has less genetic diversity because it’s so far from other grizzly populations.

Last fall, the IGBST released a study that predicted pathways male bears might use to get between the two places. Males are more likely to disperse, and the study predicted bears heading either direction are likely to use the Gravellies to the Tobacco Roots.

Before connectivity happens, though, van Manen said it’s likely that bears will continue expanding their range in places like the Ruby, gradually shortening the distance between occupied habitat in the two ecosystems.

“That observation from 2017 might have been kind of the first indication that we will maybe see more bears like that pop up in places like that,” van Manen said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lifted federal protections from the Yellowstone bears in 2017. Several environmental groups and Native American tribes disagree that the bears are recovered, and they’ve challenged the delisting in federal court. The bears in and around Glacier National Park are still protected.

Some delisting opponents have argued that the conservation strategy doesn’t do enough to protect the grizzlies most likely to inch toward connectivity. There are areas outside of a nearly 20,000-square-mile monitoring area where the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana aren’t bound to any caps on discretionary kills.

Bears that do wander into these areas will be searching for something to eat. They might find calf carcasses in open dead piles, a pungent treat that invites human conflict and might seem like an easy meal to go for repeatedly.

Compost

Cattle die for all kinds of reasons. Diseases, both known and unknown. Calves can freeze to death in the cold. Some get put down after breaking a leg. It just happens. When it does, the rancher has to do something with the body. Usually, it means piling them up somewhere.

On the Ruby Dell Ranch, the pile is in a cow pasture out of sight from the road. A pile of baling twine and other ranch miscellany sit nearby. The garnet mine is to the east, the foothills of the Greenhorn Range to the south.

The grizzly that wandered through the valley wasn’t far from the dead pile. It didn’t appear that the bear messed with it, but Anderson was worried about it anyway.

“There’s an attractant there,” he said.

Piles like this exist on ranches all over the state. But, in some parts of grizzly country, ranchers and conservationists have collaborated to create pickup programs that pile them up in central locations, eliminating attractants on individual ranches. There are also a few composting facilities where carcasses are buried in wood chips or another material that facilitates quick decomposition.

There are compost sites in both the Blackfoot and the Big Hole valleys. There’s also one in Drummond. Proponents of the system say it completely erases the odor of rotting flesh.

“You can stand in the middle of a new pile and it smells like mushrooms,” said Rebecca Ramsey, who used to work for the Ruby Valley Conservation District and now works for Swan Valley Connections. “That’s why it doesn’t attract bears.”

Until she left the conservation district in 2017, Ramsey was trying to bring a similar program to the Ruby. Ranchers in the valley wanted a site and hoped they could get ahead of the arrival of grizzly bears. Conservation groups were willing to help.

In 2015, Madison County won a grant from the Montana Livestock Loss Board to help cover startup costs. The board, which pays livestock producers for animals killed by predators, gave the county a little more than $26,000.

Three years later, the idea is still just an idea.

Multiple attempts to secure a site failed. The original plan, and what supporters say was ideal, was having a compost facility at the Twin Bridges dump site. The location was centralized for the region, and supporters imagined that ranchers from the neighboring Jefferson and Beaverhead river valleys could bring carcasses there.

But the Madison County Airport Board opposed it. The dump site is close to the Twin Bridges Airport, which had recently expanded its runway to accommodate larger planes. The board worried it would attract birds, a significant safety hazard for airplanes.

“I’ve come very close to hitting eagles and other types of large birds,” said Scott Payne, a pilot and a member of the board. “They can go right through your windshield and kill you.”

Supporters of the site argued that its smell-muzzling powers would prevent bird problems, but the board didn’t budge. Payne said he worried the bodies wouldn’t always get buried immediately, like if one was dropped off on a weekend and nobody was there.

“That’s when that could be a problem,” Payne said. “I don’t think they’re going to keep it monitored seven days a week.”

When two other sites were eventually proposed, one near Alder and another near Nevada City, nearby residents raised concerns about having a pile of dead animals nearby. Their worries stalled all forward movement for a compost facility.

The failure was frustrating to those involved, especially when the grizzly bear showed up last spring. Ramsey said that’s what they were trying to stay ahead of.

“We had thus gotten behind the eight-ball,” Ramsey said.

A last-ditch effort to launch a carcass pickup program for this spring almost happened. The county found a truck and the conservation district was in the process of hiring someone to drive it.

The carcasses were to be dropped at the Twin Bridges dump and later hauled to the Beaverhead County Landfill. Dan Allhands, a Madison County commissioner, said Beaverhead County officials told them they’d charge $20 for each carcass sent to the landfill, which nixed the plans.

Progress has been made in the Madison Valley, where the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group and the U.S. Forest Service started a pickup program this year. Linda Owens, the director of the ranchlands group, said a Forest Service staffer drives to ranches with a trailer whenever a carcass needs picked up. Then, it’s hauled to the Ennis dumpsters where it’s eventually picked up and taken to the Logan landfill.

“It’s short term until we get a compost site,” Owens said.

Owens wants to compost carcasses on a plot of land north of Ennis, and she hopes she can get that up and running. She said it could work for ranchers in the Ruby Valley, too, assuming they’re willing to haul carcasses over.

David Stout, who replaced Ramsey at the Ruby Valley Conservation District, said hauling carcasses there could work in the short term. Long term, though, he wants a site in the Ruby Valley. Though the talks have stalled, he’s still trying to make it happen.

“One hope I have is we get this thing going before there’s a huge problem,” he said.

Coexistence

A grizzly bear hasn’t made another trip to the Ruby Dell Ranch yet, but John Anderson is trying to adapt in one way — he’s working harder to keep his dead calves buried. He’d like to be able to send them to a compost site, but burying them will have to do for now. It just isn’t always something he remembers to do.

“I haven’t been as diligent about it this winter as I should have,” he said.

Anderson himself has never seen a grizzly bear. His herdsman, Andy Peterson, has seen many of them. That’s what happens when you spend the summer watching cows in remote places.

“They’re beautiful,” he said. “And the fluidity of how they move … man, you can just see the power in those suckers.”

He was short charged by a bear during one of his first summers watching cows in the Gravelly Range. He and another range rider were on horseback. A sow with cubs saw them from maybe 40 yards away.

“She cut that difference in half, like way fast,” Peterson said. “She did that short charge and bounced on her front end and woofed at us, and then grabbed them cubs and split the other way.”

They rode away as fast as they could.

It’s changed how he does things there over the years. He doesn’t ride close to willow-choked creek bottoms anymore, knowing a grizzly could be around any corner. He’s always got a pack of six or eight guard dogs with him. He carries guns, but he never wants to use them. He doesn’t want to kill a bear.

As the bears move into new territory, it will change how things are done there, too. That’s why they want to have a compost site, and it’s why Anderson is trying harder to bury his dead. Peterson said adaptations are going to be necessary.

“I think that coexistence … it’s inevitable and it’s gotta be,” Peterson said. “We just gotta learn how to deal with them and work with them and understand them better.”

Anderson is sure the grizzly that wandered around his land last year won’t be the last. He knows it’s going to happen again.

“It’s bound to,” Anderson said.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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