Kootenai Critters: Grizzlies, the Guardians of the Kootenai
Here's what you need to know about northwest Montana's most iconic species
This is the first of a series of blogs that we’ll be publishing monthly throughout the summer to showcase the wonderful wildlife of northwest Montana’s Kootenai National Forest (KNF). The KNF houses wild places like the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Scotchman Peaks, and Yaak Valley, and it’s also home to grizzly bears, bald eagles, bighorn sheep, westslope cutthroat trout, and so much more.
This summer, we’re making it easy to show off your Kootenai pride, even if you don’t live in northwest Montana. Take the quiz to discover your secret Kootenai critter identity, enter the monthly giveaway to win great outdoor gear (this month’s prizes are a Kelty daypack and a CamelBak water bottle), and sign the pledge to care for the future of the Kootenai National Forest.
We’ll send everyone who completes the quiz a free limited-edition hand-drawn sticker of their Kootenai critter identity! Monthly giveaway winners will also receive an enamel pin.
Spring has sprung and the grizzly bears are out! With grizzlies emerging from their winter-long hibernation (during which time they haven’t eaten, drunk or gone to the bathroom. Imagine sleeping through the great toilet paper panic of 2020!), what better time to learn some more about the guardian of the Kootenai National Forest?
Grizzlies like to eat. A lot.
Grizzly bears are opportunistic and adaptable omnivores and more than half their diet is vegetarian. They will eat fish, large and small mammals, insects, berries, fruit, nuts, grasses, bark, roots, mushrooms, and even garbage (remember to store your food carefully when you’re in bear country).
Before they hibernate, bears eat as much as they can. They consume up to 20,000 calories per day and can pack on as many as 30 pounds per week before entering their small dens for the duration of the winter. Now, while rapidly gaining weight and then laying still for several months wouldn’t be very good for a human, most bears remain healthy throughout hibernation. Scientists are currently seeking to better understand this process in the hopes that it could lead to medical breakthroughs for those suffering from diabetes, osteoporosis, or kidney failure.
Grizzlies depend on wild habitat in the Kootenai National Forest
Currently, there are about 60 grizzlies in the Kootenai National Forest. In the lower 48 states, there are only about 2000. Two centuries ago it’s estimated that there were 50,000 grizzly bears in the contiguous U.S., so it’s not surprising that grizzlies are listed as “threatened” in the lower 48.
There have been efforts to restore the grizzly population in northwest Montana. In the early ‘90s, the Cabinet Yaak Augmentation Program began relocation grizzlies from British Columbia into the area. The 20th bear was introduced in 2018, and estimates say that the population is growing by about two percent per year. Grizzlies need lots of room to roam and depend on the wild and intact ecosystems of northwest Montana.
How to recognize a grizzly
When you know what to look for, it’s not too hard to tell a grizzly bear apart from a black bear. For starters, grizzlies are bigger. Females weigh anywhere from 290 to 400 pounds, and males weigh between 400 and 790 pounds. One of the grizzly’s most distinctive characteristics is its humped shoulders, which are caused by a large muscle that helps the bears dig for food and excavate their dens.
Grizzlies also have a distinctive concave facial profile, shorter and rounder ears than a black bear, and longer, straighter claws.
Your grizzly stories
We’ve also been asking folks to sit around our “digital campfire” and share short stories about their own wildlife encounters. Here are a few great examples of #mywildlifestory submissions. I hope they’ll inspire you to share yours!
I've had two experiences with grizzly bears. The first was when I was six. We were in Yellowstone and had gotten a flat tire. My dad got out of the car to change it and a big brown grizzly and her cub came running down the hillside to the car. The mother bear put her face next to my window and opened her mouth, then she stood up and looked over the car at my dad. She and her cub chased him around the car, each time he tried to get to change the tire she would chase him back in. Eventually other cars pulled up ahead of us and the bear’s attention went to the other cars. It was thrilling and terrifying.
Then, three years ago, my husband and I were in the Lamar Valley watching bears across the valley with our binoculars. We lost the bear in the shade of the trees as it was coming down the hillside and the next time we spotted it, it was standing up on its back legs about 100 feet in front of where we were standing. So exciting! - Jean Dunbar
Years ago, the kids and I were finishing a long day hike from Logan Pass to Many Glacier via Swiftcurrent Valley when we came to a group of hikers stopped on the trail. A sow had put her griz cubs up a tree. Soon, a group of hikers came from the opposite direction. Like us, they stopped and watched. We had all made enough noise that mom knew we were there, and after twenty minutes of being watched, all the bears moved uphill and away much to everyone's relief. - Mike McMichael