Because of grizzly bear activity, the Heart Mountain Ranch Preserve and the trail to the summit of the mountain is closed to hikers until further notice.
The decision was made by The Nature Conservancy on the privately owned land due to the potential threat from bears. It’s the first time the trail has closed since the property was acquired by TNC in 1999.
“We thought it best to err on the side of safety and caution,” said Bebe Crouse, communiciations director for TNC in Bozeman.
Grizzly activity is common in April as bears emerge from hibernation dens and search for food with cubs. That early season roaming has not been confined to the 13,000-acre Heart Mountain Ranch.
“We do have quite a bit of activity,” said Luke Ellsbury, a large carnivore expert for Game & Fish. “It’s not particularly out of the ordinary.”
But bears have been seen at lower elevations more than usual, Ellsbury said, in such areas as Clark and near Buffalo Bill Reservoir.
“We do have some females with cubs still in their dens, and they should be out in about a week,” he added. “It’s a little bit busy. It’s that time of year to keep up your guard.”
That was exactly Brian Peters’ thinking. The manager of Heart Mountain Ranch spends considerable time on the mountain.
In early April he noticed multiple grizzly tracks on the land, including a boar. There has been a trend toward more bear activity in the ranch area in recent years, he said.
“I’ve been nervous the last couple of years,” Peters added.
Some sightings, coupled with numerous tracks, made Peters and others at the ranch uneasy this month.
“A few of us decided we didn’t like where a certain bear was hanging out,” he said. “We just kind of wanted to sit back and see what happened.”
The trail was closed April 13.
There is no way to predict how long bears will remain in the vicinity of the ranch and justify a continued closure.
“It’s not going to be all summer,” Crouse said.
Peters said the length of the closure is speculation because it will be up to the grizzlies.
“I’m thinking another week or two, but that’s a total guess,” Peters said. “People just don’t realize that bears, mountain lions and wolves are active on the mountain.”
People planning a visit to the ranch and who would like to hike are advised to call ahead to (307) 754-8446. That will be used as a hotline with recorded messages providing updates on the circumstances and information on whether or not the trail is open.
Reports of bears in the Heart Mountain Ranch area are not new. Ellsbury said he visited the area recently to check out the sightings and said G&F has heard reports of bears in that vicinity “for at least five or six years.”
The fact that there seems to be a greater potential threat along the trail this year might only mean bears who passed through the area before have varied habits, he said. And bears tend to roam where they want.
“They do,” Ellsbury said.
(Lew Freedman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)