An Overview of Grizzly Bears in the US and Canada

Click to enlarge. See how the Grizzly Bear range has receded in the modern era.

At the moment, Grizzly Bears exist in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming in the contiguous US. One was recently photographed in the northern Cascades in Washington in an amazing photograph.

They are very common in Canada and Alaska. A man in Alberta told me that Grizzlies are so common up there that they are very nearly regarded as pests. However, the Alberta government has listed the population of 700 bears as threatened.

British Columbia has a huge population of over 16,000 bears. This number is down considerably from the 25,000 bears present at contact. There are 25,000 grizzlies total in Canada in British Columbia, Alberta, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and the northern part of Manitoba.

In 2007, a Grizzly was shot to death in the Selway-Bitteroots in Central Idaho. Previously, the last Grizzly in the Selway-Bitteroots was a confirmed sighting in 1946. There had been sightings of Grizzlies in the Selway-Bitteroots since the late 1990’s.

There are other Grizzly populations in Montana – 960 in the Northern Continental Divide, 40 in the Cabinet-Yaak, and 105 in the Selkirks.

In recent years, Grizzlies from the Northern Continental Divide group have expanded to the east in Montana out into the prairie all the way to Loma where the Teton, Marias and Missouri Rivers merge, 100 miles east of the mountains. To the north, they have expanded to the east all the way to the Tiber Dam on the Marias River near the Canadian border 65 miles east of the mountains. There is now a population of 60-80 bears living on the prairie just to the east of the mountains. To the south, there have been many Grizzly sightings in the Big Belt Mountains, and was a single sighting in the Little Belt Mountains east of Helena and south of Great Falls.

The Northern Continental Divide group is also expanding to the south in Montana to the Anaconda Range, Rock Creek and the Clark Fork south of I-90, the Sapphire, John Long, Nevada and the Elkhorn Mountains between Helena and Boulder down through the Boulder Mountains in the McDonald-Rodgers and Champion-Thunderbolt areas. Grizzlies have been confirmed in the Nevadas, Elkhorns and Boulders.

In addition, there are sightings around Lincoln, Basin and Rimini in this area and a bear was killed by car in Lincoln in 2007. Lincoln is in the Nevadas, Rimini is in the Elkhorns, and  Basin is in the Boulders. The Boulders population has been confirmed above Basin. Tracks were seen by bowhunters on Thunderbolt Mountain around 2010. In addition, there have been many sightings in the Bernice area from 2012-2014.

The McDonald Rogers Area is bounded by McDonald Pass west of Helena on the south and Rogers Pass west of Wolf Creek on the north. Two bears have been killed in recent years in the Champion-Thunderbolt. Champion refers to the area bounded by Champion Pass and Thunderbolt Mountain in the Boulders west of Basin south through the Boulders, Bull and Dry Mountains through Elk Park all the way to the Tobacco Root and Highland Mountains.

The core Greater Yellowstone population has been expanding recently in Wyoming east to the Absaroka and Beartooth Ranges, the west side of the Bighorn Basin, the Greybull River, the Shoshone River between Cody and Powell, and south to the Gros Ventre Range, the Owl Creek Mountains, the Wind River Range south at least to the Big Sandy River, Wind River Valley and Wind River Basin to at least Lander, the Wyoming and Snake River Ranges, the Greys River, the Green River Valley and all the way down to north of Evanston on the Utah border.

In Montana, the Greater Yellowstone group is expanding to the north and east to the Absarokas, the Beartooths, all the way to the Pryor Mountains and to the north and west to the Madison, Gravelly, Greenhorn and Snowcrest Ranges and the Tobacco Root, Highland and Pintler Mountains. A bear was killed recently in the Highlands, and bears have been occasionally documented in the Pintlers. A clawed tree with grizzly bear hair on it was seen in 2010 in the Highlands.

In 2013, a bear was repeatedly seen on Fleecer Mountain southwest of Butte. There have been a few bears sighted southwest of Philipsburg in the southern end of the Flint Range. In the northern part of the Flint Range, Fish and Wildlife trapped a bear in Deer Lodge that was raiding beehives.

Montana Fish and Game has repeatedly trapped bears around Georgetown Lake in the southwestern part of the Flint Range. In 2013, a Grizzly was seen at Seymour Lake in the Pintlers. It is only 12 miles from Seymour Lake to Georgetown Lake. This is the gap in the Grizzly range in this area from the southwestern end of the Flints to the northern end of the Pintlers.

In addition, in 2005, a young Grizzly bear was found shot to death with an arrow in Cabbage Gulch in the Mount Haggin Wildlife Management Area in northern end of the Pintlers. This bear was proven to be from the Northern Continental Divide group. There has been no testing of bears further to the south in the Pintlers, Highlands, Mount Fleecer or Tobacco Roots to determine which group they are a part of.

Between McDonald Pass and the Pintlers is 35 miles of the Boulders and between the pass and the Tobacco Roots and the Boulder and Jefferson Valleys is 50 miles of the Boulder, Dry and Bull Mountains. In order the breach this gap, the bears would need to occupy all of the Boulder and Bull and Dry Mountains, and they would also have to make it through the Jefferson and Boulder Valleys.

In June 2010, a Grizzly was shot by a landowner at the south end of Elk Park Valley when he found it in the duck pen outside his home, so they have already made it to the Elk Park Valley. The Elk Park Valley is a high mostly treeless plain like Sierra Valley in California at 6,000 feet. It consists of three towns – Elk Park, Trask and Woodville. The southern end of Elk Park from Trask to Woodville is from only 4-10 miles northeast of Butte, so this report means that Grizzlies are now only 4-10 miles from Butte itself. It is not known if Grizzlies are present in the Bull or Dry Mountains.

So the present distributional gap between the two populations from the south end of Elk Park Valley to the Highland Mountains is the Jefferson Valley, about a 14-21 mile gap. The valleys are full of ranches, and getting through them would would not be easy.

If this gap can be breached, the Greater Yellowstone group will be able to link up with the Northern Continental Divide group to form one huge megapopulation from the Wind Rivers in Wyoming west to the Caribou Mountains in Idaho all the way north in Montana to the Canadian border and 100 miles east into the prairie. However, there does not seem to be any evidence of gene flow between the two groups now.

The Greater Yellowstone group is also expanding to the west into Eastern Idaho to Island Park just east of Yellowstone in the Centennial Range and even to the Caribou Mountains east of the Snake Rivers.

The North Cascades population in Washington is estimated at only 10-20 bears.

Endangered Species Act protection has been removed from the bears in the Yellowstone region, but a lawsuit by conservationists caused a judge to reinstate protections. This subgroup has a population of 1,000. In the Northern Continental Divide in Montana, similar-sized  population of 960 bears exists. The Northern Rockies and Greater Yellowstone populations are considered to be at capacity.

There are 32,850 Grizzly Bears in the US in total, but 95% of them are in Alaska. Therefore, Alaska has a population of ~31,000 bears, and there are 1,850 bears in the rest of the US.

The Grizzly Bear formerly ranged through the Western and Southwestern US.

There are ongoing sightings of Grizzly Bears in Colorado, especially in the Southern Rockies near the New Mexico border in the San Juan Range. If it exists, the population may be small (10-20 bears) and inbred.

The last confirmed sighting of a Grizzly in Colorado was in 1979 when a hunter was mauled by a female bear in the San Juans. He shot and  killed the bear though so biologists were able to study it. Prior to that, the last known Grizzly Bear in Colorado was killed in 1952, and it was assumed that bears were extirpated from the state. Autopsy revealed that the dead sow in 1979 had already given birth to two litters in the past, so her cubs were probably still roaming around, and there had to have been at lest one boar in the area to impregnate her.

A Grizzly was photographed at an unknown date in the Wet Mountains between Westcliffe and Beulah, Colorado in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A family saw a Grizzly Bear at an unknown date near Walsenberg, Colorado in the Sangre de Cristos.

A man and his wife saw a huge male Grizzly weighing 1,000 pounds in the Cimarron Mountains in the San Juans at an unknown date. Ten minutes later, a ranch hand from the ranch next door stopped by to warn them that there was a Grizzly Bear in the area.

Two hunters saw a large Grizzly Bear weighing 600 pounds and standing seven feet tall on an unknown date near Shelf Road between Canon City and Cripple Creek, Colorado in the Pike’s Peak Country of the Southern Front Range.

A Grizzly Bear was photographed at an unknown date west of Weston, Colorado in the Sangre de Cristos. The photos was shown to Game and Fish personnel who would neither confirm nor deny that it was a Grizzly. Off the record, the game warden said there are still a few Grizzlies in the area, but the department’s official position is to deny that they exist, as 1) They do not want an endangered species in the area putting land restrictions in; 2) They do not want local ranchers getting up in arms over the Grizzlies and demanding to kill them; 3) They do not want to deal with hunters demanding to shoot them and 4) They do not want to have to draw up an expensive management plan for them.

Two fishermen saw a grizzly bear and tracks near Garfield Lake near Silverton, Colorado in the San Juans in Fall 1982. In Late Spring 1982, Grizzly tracks were seen in the Weminuche Wilderness between Pagosa Springs and Creede, Colorado in the San Juans.

There was a confirmed sighting by a PhD biologist in the headwaters of the Navajo River near Pagosa Springs, Colorado in the San Juans in 1989.

A female Grizzly was seen on the eastern side of the San Juans a few miles from the New Mexico border in the early 1990’s. A Grizzly Bear was sighted in La Manga Pass in the San Juans in 1995.

In the mid-1990’s, three hunters saw a Grizzly Bear den on Bull Mountain in Larimer County near Red Feather Lakes in North Central Colorado in the Medicine Bow Mountains seven miles south of Wyoming border. Two years later, hunters returned to the same den and found a Grizzly Bear’s head nailed to a tree outside the den. It had apparently been killed by someone. Between 1996-2005, possible Grizzly scat was seen on the same mountain by a man researching Grizzly Bears.

In 1997, a female Grizzly Bear with two cubs was seen in La Manga Pass. There was another sighting near this pass close to Manassa, Colorado in the San Juans in 2003, and a female was seen in the same area 2000. That is only seven miles north of the New Mexico border.

A Grizzly was seen near Creede 2005. Another Grizzly was seen in the same area 2006-2009.  A female Grizzly Bear with cubs was sighted in Late September 2006 near Independence Pass east of Aspen, Colorado in the Sawatch Range. In 2007, hunters said they saw a Grizzly Bear near Aspen. The same year, a possible female Grizzly with two cubs was seen in the high country in Red Wing, Colorado in the Sangre de Cristos.

In addition, tracks were seen at 10,000 feet in the Routt National Forest in Colorado just south of the Wyoming border in 2010. This area is to the west of Crowdrey, Colorado. Hunters in the area may see Grizzlies with some regularity. The nearest reported Grizzly location from there is 220 miles to the west near the Green River in far northeastern Utah where Utah, Wyoming and Colorado all come together.

On July 31, 2010, two men saw a Grizzly Bear at 12,000 feet on Little Cimarron Road near the Big Cimarron River three miles southeast of Cimarron, Colorado. They saw Grizzly tracks at Silverjack Reservoir where the Big Cimarron River comes into the reservoir. Cimarron is just south of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River.

On June 10, 2012, three men riding the COG to the top of Pikes Peak in the Southern Front Range saw a Grizzly Bear. In Fall 2013, a Grizzly was seen near Crawford, Colorado pursuing a gut shot elk. Crawford is between the West Elk Mountains and the Grand Mesa. In Fall 2014, Grizzly tracks were seen above Masonville, Colorado near Rocky Mountain National Park at the northern end of the Front Range.

A Grizzly Bear walked through a yard in Indian Creek near Lake City, Colorado in the San Juans in the June 2015. The same month, two Grizzly Bears were seen in the San Juans above Pagosa Springs on a single day. One weighed 800 pounds. Later the same month, on June 28, a large Grizzly Bear was spotted 50 yards off the highway in the pass coming into Cimarron. The motorists watched it for 15 minutes before it retreated up the slope.

A Grizzly Bear was killed on I-80 in Utah in the early 80’s, though this was never acknowledged by wildlife officials. Tracks have been seen recently in the Book Cliffs of Eastern Utah. The Book Cliffs or Roan Cliffs extend from Grand Junction, Colorado northwest to Price and Helper, Utah, so the tracks were seen somewhere in the Utah portion of this area, the center of which is 50 miles northwest of Green River.

There have been four sightings of Grizzly Bears in the Bear River Mountains in Far Northern Utah. This range extends into Far Southwestern Idaho which is not far from known Grizzly populations in the Caribous. In Summer 2013 a Grizzly Bear was sighted in Utah near Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in the Three Corners Area where Colorado, Wyoming and Utah all come together.

Grizzly Bears may also exist right across the Colorado border in New Mexico. In the late 1980’s, a Grizzly Bear cub was seen just across the Colorado border west of Chama, New Mexico.

A subspecies of Grizzly Bear, the California Golden Bear, was hunted to extinction. The last bear was shot in Tulare County in 1922.

Another subspecies, the Mexican Grizzly Bear, is said to be extinct, as it has not been seen for some time. By 1960, there were only 30 bears left, and only four years later in 1964, it was regarded as extinct. Rumors continued of bears seen in the Yaqui Headwaters Region.

In 1969, a naturalist organized an expedition there with no success. A recent journal article examined a skull of a juvenile bear shot in Arroyo del Oso in Sonora, Mexico in 1976 and determined that the skull was that of a Mexican Grizzly Bear. Residents of the region say that bears matching the description of Mexican Grizzly Bears continued to exist in the foothills of the sky islands of Sonora and the rest of the bear’s former range as of 2007.

A joint-US expedition to Mexico in 1980 found tracks, other Grizzly Bear sign and one sighting of what the experts determined was a Grizzly Bear. 32 years later, it is not known if Grizzlies persist in Mexico. However, mammalogists feel that they continue to exist in the Sierra del Nido in Chihuahua at the very least, and they may persist in Sonora also.

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10 Comments

Filed under Americas, Animals, Bears, California, Canada, Colorado, Idaho, Mammals, Mexico, North America, Omnivores, Regional, USA, Utah, Washington, West, Wild, Wyoming

10 responses to “An Overview of Grizzly Bears in the US and Canada

  1. vergearuker

    I spend my summers in the back country of Idaho and Montana fly fishing and camping. I am starting to see wolves along with the usual black bears and an occasional grizzly. My favorite grizzly sightings are always when they are spread out across a garage floor skinned! I say let B.C. have them, There’s not enough room down here any more…..

  2. Jussi

    Big lol@ Alberta’s numbers and that map. I am from a small village in northwest Alberta called Fort Assiniboine. According to this map, the location of my county had no more bears. What a joke. You can look this up, the third latest grizzly ever shot was here. There is a large subspecies of Grizzly that many do not know about live in this area. Locally they are called Swan Hills grizzlies. Very big animals. Now for the statement that there are none in my area and barely any in Canada. I work for a gas company working drill sites in the area. I have seen 5 different bears in the last month. the only reason why the Alberta government say there is 700 is because they can keep it a threatened species and prevent ourselves from shooting them as they are everywhere. Heck the kids can’t go out and play during Autumn as we will get a grizz in the yard (normally the same one as they have territories and there is a lot of them) too often. But goodness. They are the most beautiful animal I have ever seen.

  3. nominay

    When the humans become an endangered species, that will be a good day for what’s left of Earth. It’s too bad we survived the Toba Catastrophe.

  4. jenny

    we lived in alaska for close to 10 years and saw all kinds of grizzlies and black bears. and have lived on southeast Arizona for the past 10 years, last summer there were all kinds of black bears in the mountains and one even wandered into town. but my dad saw a grizzly/brown bear in the mountain. he sat and watched it for quite a while, it had the big hump between the shoulders so he was sure it wasn’t a black bear.

  5. Ted Gorsline

    You mention grizzly bears in Ontario. No specimens except the 10,000 year old skull in the Royal Ontario Museum which comes from near Lake Simcoe. However, a game warden named Karl Monk told me 30 years ago that and Indian trapper says they are found along the Black Duck River near the Manitoba border

  6. Hello Robert,

    I have read the statistic about 95% of the US brown bear population living in Alaska but have never seen an official study cited for that figure. Can you please share where you got that number? Thank you.

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