Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone

CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO A grizzly bear feeds on a bison carcass in Yellowstone National Park in this file photo. Grizzlies have been responsible for two human deaths this year in Yellowstone.

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Grizzly bears are moving into Bozeman’s backyard, proving that the Gallatin Range is still sufficiently wild.

Independent wildlife biologist Steve Gehman has confirmed the presence of grizzly bears between Yellowstone National Park and Porcupine Creek south of Big Sky.

“Tracks have been seen in the Hyalite drainage, so they’re getting closer to home,” Gehman said. “People to the south (of the range) are more aware, but those to the north could be kind of surprised.”

Last July and August, Gehman prowled almost 50 miles of trail along the southwestern side of the Gallatin Range looking for trees that animals had rubbed against. With an eye trained by decades of experience, he located almost 100 such trees.

After gathering skeins of animal hair from the trees, he spent hours sorting the hair and trying to identify each donating animal.

Out of 40 hair samples, 30 belonged to grizzly bears, two of which were found near the lower Porcupine Creek trail. The rest of the samples, including a few from along Portal Creek farther north, belonged to black bears or could not be identified.

“A silver tip is characteristic of a grizzly bear hair,” Gehman said. “But not all grizzlies have silver tips, so that’s when we depend on DNA.”

A Canadian laboratory, Wildlife Genetics International, analyzes DNA from hair follicles. At the most basic level, the analysis can identify the species. If the sample has high-quality DNA, it can identify individual animals.

But DNA analysis costs $70 a hair, so Gehman’s nonprofit research program, Wild Things Unlimited, has to be selective. If two rubbing trees weren’t far apart, he’ll send hairs from only one tree because it’s likely a bear rubbed on both trees. But he’s risking losing data on a different bear.

“It’s kind of a balancing act,” Gehman said. “But we can’t afford to send unlimited samples.”

Gehman sent nine samples with good DNA that turned out to belong to five bears: four males and one female.

Add those to the bears Gehman discovered during a 2006-2008 study in the Tom Miner Basin northwest of Gardiner, and he’s identified 28 bears north of the park, 21 of which are male.

“I’ve talked with other people about the sex ratio, and it’s not unusual for an expanding population,” Gehman said. “Males are more likely to disperse first.”

Bear biologist Charles Jonkel noted grizzly populations are slowly expanding across Montana but worries that such evidence will prompt another push to delist them from the Endangered Species Act.

“All this used to be their habitat, and we’re taking better care of them now,” Jonkel said. “But if they’re delisted, the individual states will be less willing to support them; they’re expensive.”

Another phase of Gehman’s project is to use the DNA to learn which bears are related. If bears are having cubs, it further proves that larger populations are becoming established outside the park.

“Conflict with hunters over food is probably the biggest threat now, but I’m also worried about recreationalists,” Gehman said. “People need to be aware that grizzlies are out there and take precautions.”

Gallatin National Forest spokeswoman Mariah Leuschen said the Forest Service is coincidentally creating new flyers and signs to educate hikers about bears.

“When we see his results, we’ll definitely target our efforts in those areas,” Leuschen said.

Gehman’s research was partially funded by the Wilderness Society.

Laura Lundquist can be reached at or 582-2638.

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