COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — The 20-year-old female grizzly Ethyl has become a seeker, a wanderer.
The Montana bear hasn’t been acting her age, and fortunately researchers — with a tracking collar — have been able to document her impressive journey from her home state to North Idaho. They lost track of her exact location in late December, but starting next month they expect to pick up her signal again.
They’re anxious to know where she ended up for hibernation, and where she’ll venture next.
Ethyl first came to the attention of wildlife scientists and researchers through her DNA, said Wayne Wakkinen, a senior wildlife research biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Bonners Ferry.
In 2004, a sample of Ethyl’s hair was collected around the South Fork of the Flathead River near Kalispell.
In September 2006, she was first captured after making herself at home in an apple orchard near Lake Blaine east of Kalispell.
She wasn’t threatening people at the orchard, but there are homes around and she was moved and released for her safety and the public’s. Better safe than sorry.
She wore a radio collar for the next six years, hung around her home range and stayed out of trouble, Wakkinen said.
In September 2012, she was picked up after finding her way to another apple orchard near Lake Blaine.
This time, in a bigger move, she was released east of the Hungry Horse Reservoir, with scientists hoping to break her habit of hitting up apple orchards in the fall.
The idea was to give her some quality country to roam around in and stay out of people’s fruit.
Since then she has done some roaming — lots of it, covering thousands of square miles.
In fact, in March of last year, Ethyl was spotted near the mouth of the Blackfoot River east of Missoula.
Throughout last summer she was north of Missoula. In mid-October, she made her way to the Rattlesnake on the north end of the city, and then journeyed west of town to the Nine Mile area west of Missoula.
Her tracking collar was “on the fritz” at this point, but still working enough, sending out some signals of her location, he said.
By the middle of November she had reached North Idaho and the upper reaches of the Coeur d’Alene River to the area of the Magee backcountry airstrip.
On Nov. 24, her tracking collar slipped into battery saving mode and stopped sending signals.
Still, scientists like Wakkinen could track her from the air with a receiver.
“I located her once, straight north of the Shoshone County Airport,” which is in Smelterville, Wakkinen said. She was on Thomas Hill, he said.
That was early December, when she should have been hibernating.
A week later she had moved east toward Osburn, and was hanging out in the upper end of Twomile Creek to the north of Interstate 90.
“Then we just had a bunch of crummy weather and couldn’t fly,” he said.
Though it was well into December, there were indications she still had not settled in for her winter sleep.
Instead, credible reports of her location came in based on sightings, he said.
She had ventured to the south side of I-90, and into the St. Joe River drainage. She was likely somewhere near Avery, he said.
“We don’t know if she denned up there,” he said.
Biologists won’t receive her definite location until April. That is when her tracking collar wakes up from its battery saving mode and her location is transmitted to researchers in Montana. Her collar is due to drop off in October.
Jason Kirchner, a spokesman for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, said if Ethyl is in the St. Joe Ranger District in the Avery area, she is far outside where Forest Service biologists would expect to find a grizzly.
“Most grizzly we would expect to find would be north of Lake Pend Oreille or the Pend Oreille River,” Kirchner said.
Wakkinen is eager to learn where she has gone and ended up.
A typical female grizzly her age has a range of 60 to 100 square miles, he said.
“She has far exceeded that,” he said. “She’s moving through thousands of square miles.”
Last year was a great huckleberry year, he said, and that might help explain her endurance.
“She was able to keep laying on the calories,” he said.
Regardless, it’s just not normal grizzly bear behavior.
“It’s darn unusual, not unheard of, but certainly unusual,” he said.
Wakkinen said Ethyl’s final move by scientists from the orchard to the east side of Hungry Horse completely took her out of her home range.
“She has just been wandering around ever since,” he said.
She enjoyed the familiarity of her home range for 18 years. She had been tracked for a significant portion of that time period.
She has been quiet while in North Idaho.
While she was around the Silver Valley she behaved well, Wakkinen said.
“She stayed up high and out of trouble as far as we knew,” he said.
He and others were monitoring if she dropped down into any of the towns.
“We did know she was headed this way” last fall, Kellogg Police Chief David Wuolle said. “It’s nothing for me to be alarmed about until it shows up in town.”
There was a rumor she was hibernating near Kellogg High School, which turned out to be false. Closest she got, he heard, was Graham Mountain north of town.
“Which as the crow flies isn’t really that far away,” Wuolle said.
As a lifelong resident of the Silver Valley, he said word gets around from time to time that a grizzly wanders through. But with Ethyl, he’s impressed with just how far she has traveled.
“It kind of makes you wonder what’s on her mind,” he said.