Grizzly encounters may be Idaho’s new normal

Posted Nov. 23, 2011, at 3:04 p.m.

BOISE, Idaho — When Connie Funkhouser saw the fresh bear track heading into the Caribou-Targhee National Forest on her recent run, she turned around.

Grizzly bear encounters are up dramatically this year in Island Park, along the Snake River near the boundary with Yellowstone National Park. Funkhouser, who lives in a subdivision on the Henrys Lake flats below Sawtelle Peak, takes no chances.

A few years ago she came upon a grizzly sow and cub on her favorite trail. Her neighbor, Richard Paini, was bitten by a grizzly bear in September while hunting.

“I always wear my bear spray on my hip and carry my gun in my hand,” Funkhouser said. “I always go running with my two German shepherds.” The spray is for a charging bear, she said. The gun is to call for help.

Funkhouser is among the growing number of Idahoans finding grizzly bears as neighbors. The bears are increasingly filling Idaho’s backcountry habitat, thanks to the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act. They are spreading south from the Selkirk and Cabinet Mountains, and west from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks into eastern Idaho.

As the bears expand their range, state and federal scientists say it is only a matter of time before grizzlies move back into central Idaho — in places such as the Sawtooths where Treasure Valley residents spend weekends camping, hiking and recreating.

“It’s inevitable,” said Jim Unsworth, Fish and Game deputy director, who serves on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee that works with federal authorities to manage the bears in the lower 48 states.

This also means more people in and around Idaho are getting into conflicts with the powerful predators — and not just hunters far in the backcountry.

Jeremy Hill, who lives near the Canadian border, made national headlines when his confrontation with three grizzly bears raiding his pigs turned into a federal case.

Debra Halloway had to pedal full speed to escape a charging grizzly sow by a subdivision near the Tetons.

Outfitter Erin Bolster ran her horse at a charging grizzly to save a trail-riding client in Montana’s Flathead National Forest.

A grizzly was photographed this summer on the South Fork of the Snake River, 15 miles north of Idaho Falls.

This “new normal” is forcing people on the edges of grizzly country to become more aware and take steps to reduce conflicts — not only when they go deep in the woods but in some cases just outside their doors, said Steve Schmidt, Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional supervisor in Idaho Falls.

“We didn’t used to have to prepare for this possibility and now we all have to prepare for it,” he said.

When an adult male grizzly bear was mistakenly killed by a black bear hunter in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in September 2007, state and federal officials tried to find more grizzlies but couldn’t. If a female with cubs is verified in the area, it will force both state and federal officials to take special actions to protect grizzlies in the entire ecosystem.

That’s a challenge Unsworth doesn’t look foward to, in light of the state’s experience with wolves.

Even though bear numbers are increasing in the Selkirk and Cabinet ranges surrounding Boundary County, grizzlies are nowhere near the population levels where they would be considered “recovered” and taken off the protection list.

“As it is now, when they’re still listed as threatened, it’s like managing with one arm tied behind your back,” Unsworth said.

Grizzly populations throughout the Northern Rockies have grown enough that Unsworth would like them all delisted. He thinks the states are better equipped to protect bears, since the main issue now is which bears can live and which have to be killed.

“We’re the only ones who have a game warden in every county with the confidence of the local people,” he said.

And he’s confident that if the northern Rockies grizzly population was delisted, Idaho would successfully manage the inevitable recolonization of central Idaho.

Grizzly advocates such as Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council still think bears need federal protection and funding. But she’s ready to begin a conversation about where Idahoans want grizzlies, and where we don’t.

The place to work out those issues is in the revision of the state and federal recovery plans for the bear, she said.

The lines around grizzly habitat were drawn in 1983, when grizzly numbers were near an all-time low. Now grizzlies have spread south to the Wyoming Range and the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming and east to the plains beyond the Rocky Mountain Front. The lines and plans haven’t kept up with the growing bear population.

“We need locally driven conservation conversations about where we can anticipate problems and solve them, and where it is too much to ask,” said Willcox, of Livingston, Mont.

Funkhouser, who owns the Island Park Lodge with her husband, Jim, says many of her friends are unhappy with the number of wolves in the area and their impact on game herds.

But most can live with the grizzlies, she said, despite the danger.

“We are living in the bear’s country — they aren’t living in ours,” she said. “They have every right to this area, more than humans.”

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