GRIZZLIES:

Bears expand range as Yellowstone population surges

Grizzly bears are expanding their range to locations where they haven't been seen for decades, wildlife experts say.

Mark Bruscino, bear management program supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said biologists attribute the expansion to population growth, with Wyoming currently supporting more than 600 grizzlies, up from an estimated 224 in 1975, when the animal was a newly protected species under the Endangered Species Act.

Some areas where bears currently roam but didn't before include the state's Gooseberry drainage southeast of Meeteetse, desert environments in the Bighorn Basin and the Big Sandy area of the southern Wind River Range. The Gooseberry drainage bear is "the farthest east we've known a grizzly bear to be in the last 50 years," Bruscino said.

Other odd locations for grizzlies include Heart Mountain north of Cody and areas south of Lander.

The grizzly population has grown at about 4 percent per year since the species was first protected in the 1970s, and some wildlife managers say there could be as many as 1,000 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

As the grizzly's population has grown, so has its range, said Chuck Schwartz, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team leader. In the 1970s, the estimated range encompassed nearly 6,000 square miles. Today grizzly bears occupy about 22,000 square miles, a nearly four-fold increase.

Outside of Wyoming, bears have been seen as far east as Dillon, Mont. And on July 1, The Seattle Times reported a bear in the North Cascades of Washington.

Conservation groups say bear managers need to focus on identifying more suitable habitat for the species, not limiting the animal's movements. Providing wildlife corridors between suitable locations is also imperative (Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole News & Guide, July 6). -- DC