Beloved bear pair killed on Hwy 212; speed limit concerns raised

Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter
Thursday, November 8, 2018
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A black bear sow and cub (sow shown) were killed last week on Hwy 212.

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Photos by Colleen Kilbane
Linnhe Reed put flowers on the site of the bears’ demise.

On Friday evening, Nov. 2, a black bear sow and cub were hit on Highway 212 near Two Mile Bridge, Red Lodge. Both were killed. They were familiar to locals, and profiled a few weeks earlier in an article on CCN's front page, frolicking across the golf course and looking for chokecherries. It is not clear who hit the pair but the community is already mourning the mother and cub. 

“It’s incredibly sad,” said Linnhe Reed who gathered with about 15 locals on the site on Monday afternoon, Nov. 5, to discuss options to making the area safer. “This mom and cub gave our town and visitors such joy this summer. I believe they will always be remembered. I know Kim Wright and I will never forget our experience with them on the golf course (profiled earlier by CCN).”

The Carbon County Commissioners will hold a public hearing on Thursday, Nov. 8 at 9:30 a.m., to allow people to voice their views on the current speed limit of 70 miles per hour. 

The bears have been the topic of much posting and reposting. “I send them to Arizona,” said one woman. “Everyone felt they had a relationship with them.” People were amazed and delighted Red Lodge residents have such closeness with wildlife. 

John Potter, of Red Lodge, said, “Our relatives passed away here. We just don’t want them to die in vain. They’re sending us a message. Galvanize enough people to come here and talk. This is their home. It’s what attracts people from all over to come here. They have a need on this stretch of road to get to the river. You don’t need to go so fast. You see 70 (mph), going 80, 45-they’ll go 55. Relax and enjoy the scenery. We need to slow down.” The highway parallels Rock Creek and the highway near Two Mile Bridge is often crossed by wildlife going to the water. 

Donna Height lives right at Two Mile Bridge. She said the higher speed limit only saves a second since the speed decreases just ahead. Taking a little time means a big difference in safety. “It’s not just animals, it’s humans.” She fears pulling out on the highway. “You come out, turn and hope you don’t get hit from behind.” It’s happened before. Another neighbor said those going fast, “pull up right behind you or try to pass you immediately.”

There are unusual options being used in some states such as Colorado and by the Salish-Kootenai Tribe-wildlife corridors. The NCEL, National Council of Environmental Legislators states, “Wildlife-vehicle collisions (WVCs) cost over $8 billion per year, thus wildlife crossings generally pay for themselves quickly in costs saved for emergency and medical assistance, property damage and value of animals lost.”

Carbon County Commissioner Bill Bullock said, “You could designate almost any highway in Montana a wildlife corridor. That said, you have a vet clinic, a pretty active church, a hospital. There’s a pretty heavily used quarry here.” 

It is a State highway and the city limit stops right at Two Mile Bridge.

Bullock explained the jurisdiction. “It’s within our county so we have to support any State changes to the highway speed.” 

Bullock knows the stretch well as a former Montana Highway Patrolman along that route. “It used to be faster. It used to be just 70-and town!” He explained, “From my knowledge and experience in working that road, I know the number of animals struck and many times.” 

The speed limit approaching town was lowered to gradations when the hospital came in. But Bullock is open to further decreases. “Not to minimize the animals, there are some very practical reasons-the congestion and growth, the development in the area. There’s a lot more people using the roads. We could look at something else.”

There is a “fairly recently completed” speed study by the State. Bullock said the State needs to consider the situation but there should be public support. That is why the commissioners are calling the meeting. “Without support we don’t have a basis for doing it.” He added the State report might lend some basis. He concluded, “I think there are good reasons (for lowering the limit) but support it, or don’t support it, we’d like to hear from the community as a whole.”

On Monday morning before the gathering, Bullock had contacted Montana Department of Transportation, Billings District, head Stephen Streeter and MDT Director Mike Tooley to inform them of the issue. “It’s clearly on their radar.” 

Red Lodge Mayor Bill Larson commented, “This is a tragic thing to happen in the corridor. The road project for that area and the round about are still years down the line. The round about would have at least slowed down the traffic in that area. MDOT will be in town Tuesday November 13th and I will make this an important part of our talks. Living in Red Lodge we all cherish our wildlife and feel that they are our pets and are saddened when they pass. Some ideas would be to place some signage in that area warning not only us but our visitors of the wildlife in this area. As we all know this is a state highway and the best we can do is work together with MDOT to come up with a solution.”

Later Friday, the bodies were removed from roadside. Flowers had been placed on site. A local reported the bears had been seen earlier that evening in the middle of the highway. It was a very windy night with tree limbs cracking and littering the highway. Some wondered if the wind event frightened the bears causing them to dash out.

According to Todd Royal, of Beartooth Weather, based in northern Wyoming but covering the whole Great Basin (including Carbon County) on Friday, Nov. 2, “The winds were fairly steady 10-15 mph, but there is a pretty substantial spike from 8-11 p.m. where the steady jumped to around 20 with a few 25 mph gusts.”  

 Carbon County Sheriff's Office Dispatch was contacted but did not have information to update at the time. 

Colleen Kilbane, of Red Lodge, said, “Remember to really stress that this is a very important wildlife crossing and it is something that should be talked about how we can change this to a 45 miles an hour at the most, extend that north about a mile.” Kilbane took photos of the pair after they were hit. The cub’s photo is too graphic to print. 

See: Carbon County Commissioners Agenda, Nov. 8.