In Montana, a Growing Population Spotlights the Need for Wildlife Corridors

Residents are finding creative, community-based solutions to mitigate harm

By Victoria Traxler

October 25, 2023

Photo courtesy Vital Ground/Herrera.

I-90 crossing the Clark Fork River west of Missoula. | Photo courtesy Vital Ground/Herrera

One morning in late June, after a crisp mountain air had settled into Kootenai River valley, Megan Leach heard her chickens clucking nervously. She ventured outside to see the cause for the commotion and noticed that one of her heavy coops, on wheels but sturdy, had been moved. As dusk began to fall later that day, Leach rounded up her chickens to place them in the protection of her barn, feeling that something was watching them. It turned out to be a grizzly bear.

“The grizzly came out in the evening, as soon as it got cool enough … and basically started circling me while I'm trying to grab chickens and throw 'em in the barn,” Leach said. She eventually left the yard for the safety of her house. But the bear lingered. 

It was collared, which showed that state researchers had previously captured the bear and placed a GPS device on it to track its movements and behavior. The next morning, she called local officials who specialize in bear-human conflicts. She learned that the three-year-old bear had also raided her neighbor's chicken coops and had done the same a year prior in the city of Whitefish an hour east of Leach’s farm. Given the bear’s affinity for chickens and lack of concern over Leach’s presence, state Fish, Wildlife, and Parks officials decided to euthanize the animal the following day.

Leach knew wildlife came with the territory on a farm in rural western Montana. But the bear’s death pointed to a growing problem: Increasing development on the US Highway 2 corridor—a cross-country highway that cuts through the tip of Montana’s Crown of the Continent ecosystem—is putting a strain on wildlife habitat and catalyzing a growing trend of human-wildlife encounters that put the animals at risk. 

Leach’s farm sits just off Highway 2. The highway cuts through one of the most intact ecosystems in the country: the clear blue waters of Kootenay River, the old-growth forests of the Yaak River Valley, and the Cabinet Mountains, where efforts to restore grizzly bear populations are underway. It then dips below the borders of Glacier National Park toward the Great Bear wilderness and eventually the Blackfeet reservation. Though the region is shrouded in national forests, the dwindling open space is affecting critical habitat for wildlife. 

Flathead County accounts for 17 percent of all new homes built in Montana since 1991, according to data obtained by Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit focusing on community development and land management. Nearly half of these homes built between 1990 and 2018 are on lots exceeding 10 acres. 

Property appraiser Dave Heine has been following land values in northwest Montana and the Flathead Valley for decades combined. While property values have ebbed and flowed in the past, peaking before the recession in 2008, interest in buying property resurged in 2016 and exploded in 2020, he said. “A typical buyer would be, ‘I'm Bob, and I have six friends. We all want to raise our kids together on a big property,’” Heine said.

As demand grew in places like Whitefish, the market spilled into smaller towns nearby. Ryan Hunter, an associate appraiser with Heine’s company, grew up in Troy, a town of 800 just an hour and a half west of Kalispell. Over the years, he has seen the changes firsthand. “When I was a kid, for one thing, nobody wanted land on the highway—it was just unheard of,” he said, nodding toward US 2. “Now highway front is desirable.” Land values in remote areas they “couldn’t give away” 10 years ago have more than doubled, from some $1,300 to $3,000 per acre.

Traffic counts on Highway 2, though still low compared to more traveled passages like the interstate, are rising. Earlier this year, Montana’s Department of Transportation launched a Wildlife and Transportation Planning tool aimed at assessing the state’s roads. It looks at factors like risk to human safety and whether it is important habitat for struggling or at-risk species, like the grizzly bear. 

Most of US 2 scores above 70 in terms of risk, with 100 being the highest. A 2018 interagency report on this section of Highway 2 lists the concerns plainly: The railroad carries over 30 freight and passenger trains a day, one of the busiest in the country, and as the human population grows habitat connectivity—that is, the ability for animals to move across a landscape uninhibited—is expected to suffer. 

Roads impact ecosystems in five different ways: Habitat loss, habitat degradation, mortality, the spread of non-native plants, and what is known in road ecology as the barrier effect. Between Kalispell and Browning, 18 grizzly bears were killed by trucks and trains between 2016 and 2021, according to state data. However, the barrier effect is harder to see.

“In general, wildlife are just fine away from where people are,” said Marcel Huijser, a research ecologist at the Western Transportation Institute. “But people are along these linear corridors we call roads as well. Just having that asphalt there, the open habitat, and us driving vehicles on it, causes problems.”

Cars aren’t the only obstacle in the corridor. “It basically comes down to how do you evaluate some of the opportunities for grizzly bears to move across the landscape, and particularly across these mountain valleys where we have people, we have highways, we have railroads, and we have other things going on there,” said US Fish and Wildlife biologist Wayne Kasworm, who heads the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Protection Program. He noted that garbage, livestock, and orchards create a “sink,” pulling bears into heavily populated areas in search of food. 

In 2020, Kasworm partnered with other researchers to study black bear population fragmentation in Montana and across the border into Canada. Kasworm found that the population was showing signs of fracture, meaning bears were becoming isolated from each other. The fragmentation of grizzly bears creates a greater conservation risk because it results in a small number of grizzly bears in the Yaak separated from a small number of grizzlies in the Cabinets. 

Grizzly bear researcher Cecily Costello, with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, assesses the same problem near Kalispell and Glacier National Park, east of Kasworm: Though she is less concerned about connectivity, she worries about bear-human conflict. “We do have [bear] mortalities that occur right on that highway, and especially on that east side, and it's because bears are attempting to live along the corridor, and therefore they cross it frequently,” she said. For the last several decades, around 75 percent of grizzly bear deaths in this region were human-caused, according to federal population monitoring reports. “I think the human population in the valley is an equal challenge to the highway itself,” she added.

Residents of the region are not oblivious or unresponsive to the issue. Some have taken to creative, community-based solutions in hopes of mitigating bear-human conflict. Kris Boyd, a wildlife biologist, and Shawna Kelsey, a community and economic development specialist, cofounded Pink Bench Distillery in Libby, Montana, with this problem in mind. By using local produce gleaned, donated, or purchased from orchards around their community to create alcohol, they hope to reduce a primary reason bears are drawn to their town. 

Megan Leach recently joined their team. “We talk about bear mitigation, and that was really our inspiration and continues to be a driver for what we're doing,” Kelsey said. “But of course, it’s an economic development issue too that we're trying to address by building a small business that can employ people and be a benefit to the community.” 

The distillery plans to open its doors in November, hoping to offer a couple good glasses of brandy, and a few less bears on their doorstep.