I live in the Inter-mountain West in an area that no longer has grizzly bears and though the occasional wolf from Yellowstone passes this way, there have been no grizzly bears. We have been planning an elk hunt in Wyoming, where we will pack in with horses and set up a wall tent in an area where grizzly bears have been seen.
I started researching grizzly bear populations and distribution because friends of mine from the South, though they don’t come out and admit it, are afraid to hunt in the West because of grizzly bears. Any discussion about grizzly bear populations and distribution should be a conservation issue, but my friends obviously think it is a hunting issue, because it limits the places they want to hunt.
We have all seen too many bear attack stories on T.V., where some poor hiker tells the horror story of their grizzly encounter. I cringe when I see the nasty scars and hear them describe the sounds and sensations of teeth scraping on their skulls. I knew a bear biologist that wore an eye patch because a grizzly took his eye when it bit him in the face.
Wait a minute…
This is not the way to convince my friends that it is safe to come hike, camp or hunt with me. Let’s start over.
This post is about where grizzly bears can be found and how many can be found there. It is also about where you can go to hike, camp, hunt and fish and be confident that your chances of running into a grizzly bear is minuscule.
Where to Find Grizzly Bears in the U.S.
There are only five grizzly bear populations in four western states (not counting Alaska). Since grizzly bears are listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act, their populations are constantly monitored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and state biologist. Five Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones have been established (Figure 1) that have grizzly bear populations and one Recovery Zone. The Recovery Zone does not have a breeding population, but has been proposed as a place to establish another population in the future.
- Greater Yellowstone
- Northern Continental Divide
- North Cascades
- Selkirk Mountains
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
The Greater Yellowstone area covers portions of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho and depending on the source and how much additional land is included, the Greater Yellowstone area covers between 6 million and 14 million acres. The grizzly bear population has been estimated at about 600 bears for a density of between one grizzly bear per 15.6-36.5 square miles (or one bear per 10,000 – 23,333 acres). The Recovery Plan goal is to maintain at least 500 genetically diverse grizzly bears.
The Greater Yellowstone area includes the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton National Forests of Wyoming, In Idaho, that includes the Targhee National Forest and portions of Caribou National Forest near Yellowstone and the Gallatin National Forest of Montana just north of Yellowstone.
Grizzly bears are expanding outwards from Yellowstone and have moved down the Wind River and Wyoming ranges, Further south than Lander Wyoming.
Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem
The Northern Continental Divide area covers about 7.6 million acres in The Rocky Mountain section of north west Montana but also extends into Alberta. From information I can gathered, in 2004 the grizzly bear population was estimated at 765 bears (95% CI 715-831) in the U.S. portion of the area.
The population was estimated to be growing at 3% per year. If so, the populations could be 993 bears (with 95% CI between 929-1078) by 2013.
If the 2013 grizzly bear population is 993 bears, then the density is one grizzly bear per 12 square miles (or one bear per 7,654 acres).
This population estimate is higher than the goal of the recovery plan for this area, which is 800 genetically diverse grizzly bears. That is why there is a discussion about removing Grizzly Bears from Endangered Species Protection.
The Northern Continental Divide area includes Glacier National Park, parts of several National Forests (Kootenai, Flathead, Helena, Lewis and Clark, and Lolo) and the Bob Marshall, Great Bear, Scapegoat and Mission Mountain Wilderness Areas.
Grizzly bears have moved back into their former range the high plains as far as 175 miles east of the mountains (Loma, Montana). USFWS biologists say there could be as may be as many as 70 – 80 grizzly bears in the high plains. Grizzly bears are also extending their range down the mountains towards Missoula, Montana. A recovered gps radio collar proved a bear had been in the Missoula valley.
North Cascades Ecosystem
The North Cascades area covers about 6 million acres in Washington State and about 882,000 acres in British Columbia. The grizzly bear population on the U.S. side has been estimated at 6 -20 bears for a density of between one grizzly bear per 475 – 1,583 square miles (or one bear per 1,001,333 – 304,000 acres).
The Northern Cascades area includes North Cascades National Park and parts of Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forests as well as the Pasayten, Stephen Mather and Mount Baker Wilderness areas.
This is a very large area with only a handful of grizzly bears, so chances are not good to find them here. According to the Seattle Times (July 1, 2011) “For the first time in nearly half a century, experts have confirmed that a hiker has photographed a living grizzly bear in the North Cascades of Washington”. Biologists have confirmed tracks, but have so far attempted to collect hair samples without success.
The Cabinet-Yaak areas covers about 1.66 million acres in Yaak river drainage and the Cabinet and Purcell mountain ranges in northwestern Montana and northern Idaho, with additional grizzly bear habitat across the border in Alberta. The grizzly bear population on the U.S. side in the Cabinet-Yaak area has been estimated at 30 -40 bears for a density of between one grizzly bear per 65 – 86.7 square miles (or one bear per 41,6000 – 55,467 acres).
The area Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem includes parts of three National Forests (Kootenai, Idaho Panhandle and Lolo), the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness area and the Scotchman Peaks Area (proposed wilderness). The Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem is a unique in the Northern Rockies as it is a low elevation “rainforest” and has some of the oldest cedars in North America. The area still shares a small population of Woodland caribou with Canada.
In 2007, a grizzly bear was killed in north-central Idaho, where the last confirmed sighting of the species was in 1946. Most likely a bear from the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem.
Selkirk Mountains Ecosystem
The Selkirk Mountain area covers about 1.28 million acres in Washington and Idaho and connects to more bear habitat in British Columbia. The grizzly bear population on the U.S. side has been estimated at between 30 – 50 bears on the U.S. side for a density of between one grizzly bear per 40 – 66.7 square miles (or one bear per 25,600 – 42,667 acres).
The Selkirk Mountains ecosystem includes the Colville and Idaho Panhandle National Forests and some Idaho State Lands.
Recently, four grizzly bears, including a sow with cubs have been spotted in “the wedge”, a piece of land between the Kettle and Columbia Rivers in northeast Washington. These bears are assumed to be from the Selkirk Recovery area.
Bitterroot Recovery Area
The Bitterroot Recovery Area (AKA Selway-Bitterroot) is about 3.6 million acres mainly in Idaho, but also along the Montana border.
This is a very politicized area as far as grizzly bears are concerned. It has been proposed that 25 grizzly bears be transplanted to create another population, but the proposal has been on hold since 2000. Grizzly bears have been documented there, but currently, the USFWS claims there are no grizzly bears (population = 0), so any bears found there must just be moving around and are not considered to be residents.
Western States That No Longer Have Grizzly Bears
There are several stories about the last grizzly killed in Arizona; one story has the last grizzly bear being killed in 1933 by a government hunter, in what is now the Escudilla Wilderness Area. It is the Escudilla area where Aldo Leopold worked for the U.S. Forest Service and where his experiences led him to write the book “Think Like a Mountain”. Another story claims the last grizzly bear was killed in 1935 in Greenlee County and a third story claims the last grizzly was kill in 1939 near Mount Baldy.
Despite the fact the “Golden Bear” is the official state animal and appears on the California state flag, the last documented grizzly bear was kill in 1922 in Tulare County.
The last documented grizzly bears in Colorado was a female (with cubs) killed in 1979 (San Juan Mountains) when the female attacked at bow hunter. Prior to that, the last sighting in Colorado was in 1952. People continue to report grizzly bears sightings in the San Juan Mountains and the Bosque del Oso area, but like bigfoot sightings, none can be documented.
The best reference I found was a post on a wildlife forum by a person that sounded like a credible wildlife biologist. They claimed to see a grizzly and photographed tracks in the San Juan area in 1989. There are reports that Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) are aware of a few grizzly bears in the state, but don’t want “Endangered Species Issues” from the Feds.
Even if that was CPW’s official stance, there is no way credible reports about grizzly bears would not find their way to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologists.
If grizzly bears continue to expand in Wyoming, it is possible they could reach Colorado, either directly down the mountain ranges from Wyoming or through the Uinta range in Utah.
The last grizzly bear was killed in 1931 in the mountains near of Silver City, New Mexico. Another source says the last bear was killed much earlier in 1917.
The last known grizzly bear was killed in Wallowa County, Oregon in 1937.
It is very unlikely for grizzly bear to return to Oregon unless the North Cascade population in Washington expands.
The last known grizzly bear in Utah was killed in 1923. This was a famous bear known as Old Ephraim, who was hunted by a sheep herder from 1914 until he was finally able to kill the bear in 1923. The grave is in the Cache National Forest in Northern Utah and is marked with a grave stone, so this story is well documented.
It may be possible for grizzly bears to return to Utah if they continue to increase and expand in Wyoming or Idaho. Any entry into Utah would most likely come through the Bear River range or down the Green River corridor in Northern Utah.
Update: I was recently told about a grizzly bear sighted in Utah during the Summer of 2013. A fishing guide on the Green river said his wife saw a grizzly walking through the sage in the 3-corners area (near Flaming Gorge). Since this person used to run a hunting lodge in Alaska, they should be familiar with the differences between black bears and grizzly bears.
Danger from Grizzly Bears in the Back Country
I hope this will put my Southern friends at ease. We can hike, camp, fish and hunt in Colorado or Utah and not worry about grizzly bears. You are welcome to come hunt with us in Wyoming, where it is unlikely, but possible to run into a grizzly bear. If we hunt a 6 x 6 miles area, (36 square miles), in Wyoming, it probably contains a grizzly bear. Your choice.
Keep in mind, black bears and mountain lions are everywhere, but we won’t bother them unless they bother us. But seriously, hiking and hunting the rough back country can be dangerous enough and what should cause people more concern than bears is the fact that if you don’t carry a PLB, you can’t call for help if you need it for any reason.
For me, any outdoor activity in grizzly bear country is a humbling experience, because in addition to whatever you are doing, you must also be constantly thinking about and looking for bears. If you are not humbled, you’re probably a little naive and probably will not be prepared if you came face to face with “griz”.
I’ve heard people say they wouldn’t spend $30 on bear spray and claim it’s too much trouble to pack bear spray. Yes, it’s one more thing to carry when we already carry too much, but it should be carried on your hip in a holster where you could reach it if needed. Think of bear spray as the price of a ticket to walk through grizzly bear country. It is a small price to pay to protect you from a bear and to protect the bear from you.
In fact, Frontiersman makes a practice bear spray. Think about it, would you like to have to use bear spray for the first time with a bear charging you?
Did you know that if you let a bear chew on you, someone will have to track it down and shoot it? Until they are removed from the Threatened List, each grizzly bear is far too valuable to risk because someone doesn’t think to carry bear spray. Sure, carry your gun too, but if you want to get out of a grizzly bear attack alive and uninjured, the stats lean very strongly toward using the bear spray first. (Read Post on why Bear Spray is better for both human and bear).
So to all my Southern friends, when we are in the wilds of Utah or Colorado, we will always carry our sidearms, PLB and GPS. When we are in grizzly bear country, we will also carry big cans of bear spray.