Personnel with the Montana Highway Patrol, city of Conrad, Pondera County Sheriff's Office and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks load up a grizzly bear that was darted in Conrad Monday.
Donna Hepp

A grizzly bear turned the heads of golfers and residents Monday when it showed up in Conrad, a community of 2,600 in northcentral Montana, far from the core recovery area along the Rocky Mountain Front.

"A lady ran in from hole one, said, 'There's a bear on the course. Can I get reimbursed?'" said Mikel Martin, manager of the 9-hole Pondera Golf Course.

Wesley Sarmento, a bear management specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, removed the hazard.

Accompanied by an FWP game warden, Sarmento tracked the grizzly to the backyard of a residence on the northwest edge of the city and north of the golf course.

"It charged out from the brush at us, then did a tight 90-degree angle turn," said Sarmento, who shot the bear in the side with a dart at a distance of 12 feet.

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The grizzly just wanted to get out of town, Sarmento said.

"The bear was terrified," he said.

It was fearful of people and did not eat human food.

For those reasons, the bear was relocated Tuesday to Coal Creek in the North Fork of the Flathead River, on the west side of the Continental Divide.

The grizzly is about 3 1/2 and weighs 373 pounds.

"It's slightly above average for that age," Sarmento said of the bear's weight.

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An estimated 1,000 bears occupy the 8,926-square-mile Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in northwestern and northcentral Montana. It is the largest population of grizzlies in the Lower 48. It includes grizzly bears on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains that now regularly travel along rivers and streams east to the prairies far outside of the core recovery area.

Listed as a threatened species, the bears are federally protected, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working on a delisting plan.

Bear managers with the state of Montana are charged with responding to conflicts between grizzly bears and people.

Mike Madel, a FWP grizzly bear management specialist, has been based for decades in Choteau, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains and its foothills.

FWP hired Sarmento last year to respond to conflicts and conduct prevention efforts due to the growing number of grizzlies roaming onto the prairies east of the Rocky Mountains.

He's based in Conrad, is 32 miles northeast of Choteau, and located on the prairie and Interstate 15. It's 60 miles northwest of Great Falls.

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"Mostly grain spills are the biggest problem we're having where bears are eating grain spills near residences," Sarmento said.

Sarmento isn't sure what drew the 3 1/2 year bear to Conrad. There is no evidence it fed of grain or human food.

"It may have just been passing through," he said.

Mating season is occurring now and that could have caused the young bear to get pushed out of other areas by older and larger bears, he said. Or its mother may have recently kicked it out of the family.

Capt. Dave Holland of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said the grizzly was shot at the home of Donna and Jerry Hepp.

“It was in a residential area right on the edge of Conrad,” Holland said of the bear.

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Wesley Sarmento, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear management specialist, and Sarah Zielke, an FWP bear management technician, prepare drugs used to sedate a grizzly bear in Conrad.
Donna Hepp

Sarmento shot the bear with the dart as it "free roamed" meaning it was on the loose and not restrained in a trap.

"It was a pretty difficult procedure but they were able to do it pretty successfully," Holland said.

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Sarmento said he received assistance in dealing with the bear from Conrad police and the Pondera County Sheriff's Office.

Personnel on the scene initially tried to haze the bear by chasing it with vehicles and firing cracker shells, which make a loud noise but are harmless, Sarmento said. Those tactics didn't work with the bear moving closer to town. That prompted authorities to dart the bear, he said.

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks personnel work on a grizzly bear that was darted at the ranch of Jerry and Donna Hepp on the edge of Conrad.
Nathaniel Gordon

Pondera Golf Course issued a Facebook statement about the bear early Monday afternoon.

"Bear on course, closed till further notice," the statement read.

An hour later: "Course is opened back up, just be aware there is a bear in area still."

Two hours after that posting, the club, noting a power outage had occurred (not related to the bear) and the grizzly still was in the vicinity, notified the public that the course was closed again.

"Golfers did see it," said Martin, the golf course manager. "I guess it was afraid of people."

The golfer that demanded a refund after seeing the grizzly bear was reimbursed, she said.

Follow Karl Puckett on Twitter @GFTrib_KPuckett