Grizzly Bears in the Missouri Breaks: A Wild Encounter

Lets talk Grizzly bear history!

It appeared in North America during the last ice age, maybe 30,000 years ago, migrating as early humans did, across Beringia, the land bridge that provided the pathway from northern Asia to North America.  Ursus arctos horribilis.  The Grizzly bear.  Initially it filled the ecological void left by the extinction of another, more fearsome bear species, the great short-faced bear (a cousin of the equally ferocious cave bear).  The grizzly flourished and ultimately fanned out across most of North America and as far south as Mexico.  It became a keystone species, indeed, save for recent humans, the keystone species of North America, at the very top of the food chain.  Perhaps 50,000 roamed the Lower 48 at their peak.  They were especially prolific on the northern Great Plains, the home of the once immense bison herds that roamed the land.  Native peoples here had a complex relationship with the animal, revering it, respectful of its power, aware of what it could do to a lone human unfortunate enough to run afoul of one.   Rarely would they hunt it without numbers.  They named numerous geographic points and features after the bear.  The Blackfeet name for the Marias River, in fact, translates to “Bear River.”

Grizzly Bears on the Missouri During the L&C Expedition

Lewis and Clark first heard of the bear early in the expedition but didn’t encounter one until they were in western North Dakota in April, 1805.  It is unclear how many the Corps of Discovery ultimately saw, but they documented killing forty-three of the animals and wounding a number of others.  Initially, out of scientific curiosity and a certain arrogance of the prowess of their weaponry over that of the Native peoples, they were eager to see and engage the bear.  On April 13, 1805, (still in North Dakota), Lewis wrote: 

“the men as well as ourselves are anxious to meet with some of these bear.  The Indians give a very formidable account of the strength and ferocity of this animal, which they never dare to attack but in parties of six, eight, or ten persons; and are even then frequently defeated with the loss of one or more of their party.  The [Indians] attack this animal with their bows and arrows and the indifferent guns with which the traders furnish them, with these they shoot with such uncertainty and at so short a distance that they frequently miss their aim and fall a sacrifice to the bear.”

After passing into Montana, the party’s encounters with grizzlies became both more numerous and more perilous.  Primarily, almost every time they initially came upon a grizzly they shot at it.  Even though most of the men were armed with the latest and greatest Kentucky long rifles, the low velocity muzzle loaders were often no match for a 400-600 pound, thick-hided bear.  One hair-raising confrontation required eight shots, many at near point-blank range, to bring down an enraged animal (and compelled several of the men to dive off the bank, twenty feet down into the river).   Near the great falls of the Missouri, one chased Lewis into the river, within a few feet of attack before it, as Lewis later drolly wrote, “declined the combat on such unequal grounds” and ran away.  Ultimately, Lewis noted that the bear being both ferocious and hard to kill, “rather intimidates us all,” though not enough to prohibit the Corps of Discovery from continuing to shoot, and kill, many more grizzlies along the route.

BODMER, Karl (1809-1893), Hunting of the Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bears in the Upper Missouri River Breaks now

By the late nineteenth century and the time of widespread white settlement on the northern Plains, cattle and sheep ranchers saw the grizzlies as mortal threats to their business.  Thus began what can only be characterized as wanton slaughter of the bear on the Plains.  By the early 20th century their numbers had drastically dwindled and their habitat constricted primarily to the federally protected and managed areas around the greater Yellowstone and Glacier National Park ecosystems.  In 1975 the federal government classified the grizzly as endangered under the newly created Endangered Species Act and the grizzly was placed in a special protected and managed status.  Slowly their numbers began to rebound and now there are approximately 1,500 in the lower 48 (with about 1,000 of those in the northern Continental Divide ecosystem in Montana).  There is a controversial and highly contentious move afoot to delist the animal and commence regulated hunting in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

Are bears in the Missouri Breaks?  The short answer is, yes.  But there have been only a handful of sightings primarily in the upper reaches of the Marias river basin, and only then early in the season and or late in the fall.   Even though it is an incredibly complex—and now heavily politicized—issue, most wildlife experts believe that it is only a matter of time before more grizzlies begin returning to the northern Plains and their original ranges, including the Missouri Breaks.

Check out these articles for more information on Grizzly bears in the breaks and surrounding area.

  1. For the Love Of Bears – is a great organization looking to protect bears and their habitat
  2. Vital Ground– Good information on Grizzly bear conservation.
  3. Be Bear-Aware– Videos and resources on how to be bear aware. identify tracks, scat and more.
  4. Staying Safe Around Bears– What to do if you encounter a grizzly bear in the breaks.

Most importantly, if you see bears, scat or tracks report it ASAP at 406-622-4000 and fill out a report