The Magazine of The University of Montana
A Bear's Best Friend
UM alum leads federal efforts to preserve grizzlies from Main Hall office
By Daryl Gadbow
Protecting an icon: Chris Servheen, a UM alum and adjunct professor working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, leads efforts to save grizzlies in the lower forty-eight states.
Four wildlife researchers crouch around the mammoth hulk of a grizzly bear slumbering in a drug-induced stupor in Yellowstone National Park. As the group scurries to collect a variety of data from the inanimate giant-its weight, blood samples, condition of its teeth-the tranquilized bruin suddenly stirs to life with a thunderous roar.
Woozily, the grizzly staggers to its feet and charges blindly after the fleeing researchers, who barely reach the safety of their red Ford station wagon before the bear plows like a freight train headfirst into the side of the car, rocking it off its wheels.
That dramatic scene captured the imagination of television viewers across the U.S. in the mid-1960s as part of a series of National Geographic specials about grizzly bear research in Yellowstone.
The scientific study featured in the shows-led by John Craighead, a University of Montana wildlife biologist, and his twin brother, Frank-pioneered the use of radio telemetry and satellite mapping to aid wildlife research.
Among the millions of Americans glued to their TVs for those programs was a spellbound Pennsylvania teenager.
As part of his dream job working with the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit in 1970, sophomore Chris Servheen flew this golden eagle above the slopes of Mount Sentinel to exercise the bird.
"When I grew up back East," says Chris Servheen, "I saw the National Geographic specials on the Craigheads working with grizzlies in Yellowstone, and I decided that's what I wanted to do."
In 1968 Servheen enrolled at UM as a zoology/wildlife biology major and landed a coveted work-study job with the school's Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, helping John Craighead with his grizzly field studies. His duties also included taking care of up to eight golden eagles housed by the wildlife unit in a fenced area behind Schreiber Gym at the base of Mount Sentinel.
"We used to train these eagles with falconry to fly free and come in when called," Servheen recalls. "I used to fly these eagles on Mount Sentinel every afternoon by hiking up the mountain with the eagle on my glove and then release them to soar over the mountain. I would call them back with chunks of deer meat carried in a leather bag. Missoula is a bit tamer these days, eh?
"I was really living my dream then," he adds. "I was in Montana working in wildlife biology, and for John Craighead and Bart O'Gara, who was the assistant unit leader with John in those days."
From that time on, Ursus arctos horribilis (the grizzly bear) has been the central focus of Servheen's professional life. And for the past twenty-nine years, you might say he's been the official guardian of the symbol of Griz Nation.
In 1975 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grizzly bear as a threatened species in the lower forty-eight states under the Endangered Species Act. The act's goal is to recover listed species to the point at which federal protection under the ESA is no longer needed. To accomplish that critical mission, FWS developed a grizzly bear recovery plan and hired Servheen in 1981 as the agency's first grizzly bear recovery coordinator, a position he's held ever since.
At the time he was hired, Servheen had just completed his doctorate at UM, doing research on grizzlies in the Mission Mountains of western Montana. While still involved with that study, he worked with FWS to help draft the initial grizzly bear recovery plan.
"It was a case of good timing," Servheen says of his appointment as the man in charge of FWS grizzly recovery efforts. In that capacity, he's responsible for coordinating all research and management on grizzly bears in the lower forty-eight states, as well as working with grizzly biologists in Alberta and British Columbia on grizzly conservation efforts spanning the U.S.-Canada border.
"We implement specific research and management actions to facilitate grizzly bear recovery," Servheen says. "In addition, we assist in land management activities by offering guidance to agencies on what will and will not negatively affect grizzly bear populations and their habitat."
In addition to his FWS position, Servheen is an associate professor of wildlife conservation in UM's College of Forestry and Conservation, where he advises graduate students and teaches an international wildlife conservation class each spring.
The combination of his duties for both institutions has been helpful for him, Servheen says, and also forges a mutually beneficial partnership between UM and FWS.
Initially, the federal agency stationed Servheen at its Billings office.
"But that," he says, "didn't make sense, because most of the grizzly bears were in western Montana. And Missoula is centrally located. The University said they'd give us office space. I think they thought it would bring in research and student learning activities related to that. And that's just what it did."
In 1983 FWS accepted UM's invitation, moving Servheen and the grizzly bear recovery headquarters to the Missoula campus. His office in Main Hall at the heart of campus now gives UM added distinction as "home of the Grizzlies."
Since 1983, Servheen says, he's worked with about a dozen grad students at UM doing grizzly research thesis projects. He also has advised students working on other bear species around the world.
"That's really been beneficial for us (at FWS)," he adds. "All those students I worked with on grizzly projects over the years have gone on to positions in state and federal agencies. They advanced knowledge about bears. And because they're out in the field now, I know them well, and we work closely together. This has been a very useful partnership during the past twenty-eight years between UM and the FWS to support student education and training and to advance the conservation of our state animal and UM's mascot at the same time."
Servheen also has collaborated frequently with bear researchers from other countries around the world. He's brought graduate students to UM from such exotic locations as Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Greece. He also has worked on bear conservation in many areas of the world, including a stint as a Fulbright Scholar working on brown bear conservation in Greece.
That work, and the emphasis on bear research he helped foster at UM, has made the University an international center for bear research.
"In the '80s and '90s, we were the knowledge base for other areas of the world," Servheen says. "Many students and researchers came here from around the world. They had the same problems we have: small populations, habitat fragmentation from highways and development, illegal killing. We were all sharing information and building a common knowledge base on how to help small bear populations."
While the historic range of grizzlies once covered more than a third of what is now the continental United States, the FWS recovery plan focuses on the six remaining areas in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming that have habitat suitable for self-sustaining grizzly populations. Only five of those "recovery zones" are currently inhabited by grizzlies:
-the Yellowstone, encompassing parts of Montana, Wyoming, and eastern Idaho, which covers 9,200 square miles.
-the Northern Continental Divide, about 9,600 square miles, which includes Glacier National Park; the Bob Marshall, the Great Bear, and Scapegoat wildernesses; the Mission Mountains; and surrounding national forest land.
-the North Cascades, covering nearly 10,000 square miles.
-the Selkirk, 2,000 square miles in north Idaho, northeast Washington, and a portion of southern British Columbia.
-the Cabinet-Yaak, 2,600 square miles in northwest Montana and a small portion of northeast Idaho.
The sixth recovery zone, the Bitterroot, the largest block of designated wilderness in the Rocky Mountains at more than 5,600 square miles, does not currently have a grizzly bear population despite containing excellent habitat.
Despite habitat fragmentation, grizzlies have made a remarkable recovery.
Since he started his career almost 30 years ago, Servheen says, grizzly bears have made a remarkable recovery. In 1980 the Yellowstone ecosystem had about 225 grizzlies. Now it harbors an estimated 550 to 600 bears.
"When I worked for John Craighead in 1971 in the Scapegoat doing habitat mapping, we saw four grizzly bears the whole summer-a sow and three cubs," Servheen says. "There were maybe as few as 300 in the whole Bob Marshall complex. Now there are 765 and counting.
"We probably have three times as many (in all the recovery zones) as thirty years ago," he adds. "There are 1,500-plus grizzlies in the lower forty-eight. Montana has more than half of those. For the first time since the 1880s or 1890s, we're seeing grizzlies again on the Missouri River. So we've made huge progress. And it only came through the efforts of people who live, work, and recreate in grizzly bear country. Agencies can do some good. But the cooperation and support of the public has been essential to get us where we are today."
However, that doesn't mean grizzly bear recovery efforts don't still have a long way to go, or that FWS's policies are without critics.
In 2007, citing a healthy population, the service decided to remove grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem from the threatened list under the Endangered Species Act. But a lawsuit by an environmental group resulted in the agency's decision being overturned by a federal court in 2009. FWS is appealing that ruling this year, Servheen says.
In addition, a proposal to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Bitterroot in 2000 met opposition as well, and the project was put on hold.
Worrisome, too, for Servheen and the grizzly bear recovery team are the precariously small and isolated grizzly populations in the other recovery zones.
"We've got separate populations in the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide that are doing well, and smaller populations in the Cabinets and Selkirks, and very small populations in the North Cascades," says Servheen. "All of those (the last three) are on the Canadian border. So we work a lot with our Canadian partners tracking bears. That's a very important part of our program-to have cooperation managing our linked habitats.
Servheen examines and places a radio collar on a Rocky Mountain Front grizzly two years ago as part of a monitoring program.
"The big vision," he says, "is to reconnect all the large blocks of public land in the northern Rockies, from the Cabinets to the Bitterroot and eventually down to Yellowstone, and try to understand where animals can get across highways and through human development.
"We're lucky we have huge blocks of public lands. Our goal is to identify linkage areas and put in effective crossing structures on highways, provide easements on private land, and increase sanitation at human settlements. All those things increase the permeability of the landscape for animal movements."
Servheen knows that vision could take a long time to realize'perhaps decades'and will require the support of the public.
"We've worked hard for many years building populations," he says. "In a way we're victims of our own success. We have so many grizzlies in so many places now that we have more bear-human conflicts. We have to spend more time doing human outreach and education."
Despite some recent frustration over setbacks in the courts, Servheen says he is encouraged by the progress made in the recovery of the grizzly bear so far.
"The most enjoyable (aspect of his job)," he says, "is seeing the bears doing so well'so much better than in 1981. Populations are healthy. We have bears living in places I never thought that they'd be living. The habitat management and mortality controls are so much better. It's all a much better situation for the bears."
Recent DNA studies on grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem revealed a grizzly population much larger than scientists previously thought, Servheen says.
"It's a really healthy, robust population," he says. "And the trend is very positive. We know it's going up by 2 to 3 percent a year. The Northern Continental Divide is probably the next one we'll move toward delisting."
It certainly doesn't hurt the grizzly's cause that Ursus arctos horribilis is UM's mascot symbol, Servheen says.
"It's a real positive thing for grizzly bears in Montana," he says. "We've used Monte (the UM athletic team mascot) in our education efforts. The huge popularity of the UM Grizzlies helps make the grizzly bear and its conservation much more acceptable in Montana.
"You can't put a price on that. Public perception of bears is so important to the future of the grizzly bear. We've spent a long time promoting the idea that grizzly bears are a positive thing in the ecosystem. They're prominent in Montana history. And they set us apart from other places in the country. The fact that we live in grizzly bear country, and the fact that grizzly bears are doing so well here in Montana, is something we should be real proud of.
"Montana is a special place because grizzlies still live here."
Daryl Gadbow '75, a retired reporter and editor, worked twenty-eight years at the Missoulian. He now works as a freelance writer when not fly-fishing or hunting.