Runner spots black bear in Makoshika Park

Jason Stuart
Sunday, May 31, 2020
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Local resident David Keltgen was running in Makoshika Park Thursday evening when he spotted a black bear about a half-mile from the Lions Camp. Photos courtesy of David Keltgen

A local man sighted and photographed a black bear while jogging in Makoshika State Park late Thursday evening, marking the first time in recent memory a bear has been seen in Makoshika.

David Keltgen, who is the current vice president of Friends of Makoshika and an avid long-distance runner, said he was running down the gravel road about a halfmile away from the Glendive Lions Camp in Makoshika at about 8:30 p.m. Thursday evening when the unexpected encounter occurred.

“First what I heard was some sage brush breaking, and then I looked over and I see this brown mass moving away from me,” Keltgen said. “Then I’m like, you know what, that has to be a bear.”

Sure enough, Keltgen was able to visually confirm the “brown mass” was indeed a brown or cinammon-coated black bear before it ambled into a thick stand of cedar trees. He said he went around to the other side of the grove hoping it would come out the other side so he could try to get a picture of it with his smartphone.

“Then it went into the cedars, and I thought no one’s going to believe me if I don’t get a picture of it,” Keltgen said.

The bear never came out the other side of the trees, but when Keltgen went back to where he had first seen it, there it was again, giving him the chance to take a few photos of it. While seeing a bear in Makoshika was a definite surprise, Keltgen said he wasn’t at all concerned, but rather excited to see it.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting to see that,” he said. “It was probably more scared of me than I was of it.”

Soon after seeing the bear, Keltgen came across park staff and reported the sighting to them, and they quickly informed Makoshika manager Chris Dantic and showed him the pictures.

Dantic said he and park staff didn’t bother to go out and try to find the bear themselves, as at that point it had been at least an hour since Keltgen had sighted it and darkness had closed in. But from the pictures, Dantic said there’s no doubt of what it was.

“It’s definitely a black bear,” Dantic said.

American black bears actually come in a variety of colors, and their fur can be black, brown, cinammon or even blonde.

Dantic noted that this is the first time in anyone’s recent memory that a black bear has been seen in Makoshika, though there have been sightings of them very close to the park in recent years.

“There was one seen not too far from the park last year,” he said. “It was about 15 miles from the park following the Yellowstone River.”

Both black bears and grizzly bears were once plentiful in the Glendive area and across the plains of Eastern Montana, but both species were extirpated from the region by the early 20th century. Both bear species have bounced back in recent decades, and while grizzlies remain confined to the mountains of western Montana, black bears are once again spreading their range across Eastern Montana.

Black bear populations have been growing, especially in the Powder River Country to the southwest of Dawson County, and as that population grows and more bears disperse across the landscape, it’s possible, if not likely, that black bears will become a more common sight as they recolonize their historic range.

“The bear population is steadily increasing,” Dantic noted.

Whether or not black bears may come to permanently inhabit Makoshika again is an open question. Dantic noted while the park has plenty of food and shelter to offer bears, a lack of available water may keep them from staying in the park very long.

“The habitat’s there, we just don’t have any water,” Dantic said. “It’s kind of like the bighorn sheep. They come into the park sometimes, but they never stick around.”

The only easily-accessible permanent source of water in the park is the old McCarty Pond, but Dantic said the pond is still surrounded by a fence, making it difficult for wildlife to access it. There is also Inila Lake, created by a landslide in 2014 which formed a natural dam across a ravine, though Dantic said the steep slopes leading down to it might prove a challenge even for a bear.

“I doubt it’s going to spend much time in the park because it needs a drink sooner or later, but you never know,” Dantic said.

But while whether or not this bear, or any other bear, becomes a permanent park resident may be uncertain, Dantic said it’s something of a thrill that someone has actually seen a black bear in Makoshika after who knows how many years.

“It was cool,” he said. “It’s neat to see some different wildlife in the park.”

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