When the Yellowstone to Yukon vision emerged in 1993 we all knew one of the biggest and most urgent tasks was to reconnect the isolated grizzly bear population in Yellowstone with its cousins to the north. 

This was not simply necessary for grizzly bears, which would otherwise risk being lost locally, or extirpated*, from the region but for other wildlife too. In an era of climate change, the ability of wildlife to move between landscapes with ease will increasingly determine whether or not they survive significant habitat changes. 

This goal required reconnecting the three big protected areas in the U.S. portion of the Yellowstone to Yukon region (the Crown of the Continent, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the wilderness of central Idaho) with functional wildlife corridors. 

Now, after 20 years of habitat restoration, private land conservation, public land protection and co-existence efforts, we can see the grizzlies are responding! 

Grizzlies closing the gap

Compelling evidence suggests that not only are Yellowstone grizzly populations moving northward, but also that northern populations are making their way southward. Currently, northern and southern grizzly populations are within 100 miles (160 km) of each other in west central Montana — the closest they have been in over 100 years. Furthermore, northern bears moving southbound are within 50 miles (80 km) of prime, unoccupied grizzly habitat in central Idaho’s wilderness complex. 

Conservation strategy is meaningless unless the bears respond favorably. These bears are telling the Yellowstone to Yukon community that its collective conservation efforts are making a huge difference. 

Grizzly bear sightings in key parts of the southern Yellowstone to Yukon region between 2002 and 2014

Grizzly bear sightings

A. 2002 – A grizzly is photographed feeding on a moose carcass in Rock Creek, southeast of Clinton, MT. 
B. 2005 – A male grizzly is found just outside of the town of Anaconda, MT, in Mill Creek. DNA indicates the bear came from the Crown of the Continent population. 
C. 2007 – A male grizzly bear makes its way into the Bitterroot Ecosystem, where grizzlies have not been seen since 1946. DNA suggests it is from the Selkirk population of northern ID or southern B.C. The bear has travelled 140 mi (225 km) and crossed two highways, including I-90. 
D. 2008 – A male grizzly is trapped and relocated after it meanders into a bee yard on the outskirts of Drummond, MT (on I-90 halfway between Missoula and Helena). 
E. 2009 – A male grizzly bear is found south of I-90 at a game farm in central ID near Rose Lake, farther south in that state than the bears have been seen since the early 20th century.  
F. 2010 – A grizzly bear makes its way to an area just outside of Butte, MT, in the Elk Park area. 
G. 2011 – A grizzly is trapped after it gets into a bee yard on the outskirts of Deerlodge, MT. 
H. 2011 – A collared female grizzly bear is tracked just to the north of Missoula—the southern extent of Crown of the Continent population. This is the first time grizzly bears have been documented in the Rattlesnake Mountains in decades.  
I. 2011 – An adult female grizzly bear is sighted on a remote stretch of the Marias River southwest of Shelby on I-15 in northern MT, with two cubs in tow. This is the first time that U.S. bear managers have documented an adult female so far east of the Rocky Mountain Front. 
J. 2012 – Grizzly tracks are verified by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks on the south end of the Sapphire range south of Missoula—part of their historic range.  
K. 2012 – A grizzly population living in the Blackfoot area of the Crown of the Continent is recovering and expanding its range farther south. 
L. 2014 – A grizzly is found in the Gravelly Range on the northwest edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

*The term extirpated is used when a particular species disappears from a region where it once thrived, but still exists elsewhere in its range.