Longtime wildlife biologist wraps up prolific career
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Biologist Tim Thier has had a distinguished career working with animals and birds in the western United States, but when he approached a impromptu checkpoint manned by Mexican Federal Police in Chihuahua while searching for grizzly bears nearly 40 years ago, he wasn’t sure how long, or if, that career would last.
Thier recently retired from the state agency, capping a 30-year career with it. But Thier’s career studying and working with wildlife dates back much further than that.
He first worked in Northwest Montana in 1976 with famed bear biologist Chuck Jonkel. Jonkel, who died nearly three years ago, was a pioneering bear biologist who spurred the careers of many who studied bears and other wildlife. Thier also worked with Chris Servheen of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the first grizzly bear recovery coordinator, who retired in 2016.
Thier is happy to retire so he “can get some things done around the house now,” but he said he wouldn’t trade his experiences for anything in the world.
“As far as I’m concerned, we are living in the greatest area in the United States,” Thier said. “I’ve been able to work with all different types of wildlife and the public and I’ve enjoyed it greatly.”
Regarding that police checkpoint in Mexico, Thier found himself there in the spring of 1979 because government officials wanted to know if there were grizzles in Mexico. He was working a short-term job with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at the time.
“They asked us to come down and see if we could determine if there were any left,” Thier said. “I met with a grizzly guide who was involved with hunts where the last two known bears were killed. But he was convinced there were still some left, so we set snares in the Sierra del Nido Mountains and saw some bear tracks. But the climate is very dry there and the tracks were left in the dust, so the quality wasn’t good and we could never determine for sure what type of bear left the prints.”
As the joint project came to a close, a veteran game warden from Chihuahua, Pepe Trevino, had joined the search for a few days and was leading the way as Thier followed when they were leaving.
“We had carried a .45-70 caliber rifle with us and it was in the back of the pickup I was driving,” Thier recalled. “The drug lords were starting to take over at the time and some of my cohorts were taking bets if we’d come back alive!”
Thier said as the approached the road block, he could see two police officers with machine guns blocking the road.
“Pepe was ahead of us and he had told them to wave us through and they did,” Thier said. “I have no doubt that I would have spent time in a Mexican prison if it weren’t for Pepe.”
Encounters with the federal police weren’t Thier’s only hair-raising encounters as he worked with grizzlies in Northwest Montana.
He was in pursuit of his bachelor’s degree in the University of Montana’s Resource Conservation Program in the mid-1970s and had secured a job as a wrangler with an outfitter who worked in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
“I’d go to school for one or two quarters, then work to pay for school,” Thier said.
But the outfitter didn’t have enough bookings and Thier was the odd man out in the operation. Fortune was on his side, though, when he ran into Rick Mace, a fellow Iowan who was also studying wildlife in Missoula. Mace went on to a 40-year career studying bears before retiring from Fish, Wildlife and Parks in 2015.
“Rick and I met at orientation at school,” Thier said. “He was my first friend and we’ve done a lot of work together over the years.
“It was in 1976 and Rick had just got a job with Chuck (Jonkel) on the border grizzly project. I got some work-study money and joined the project,” Thier said.
Grizzly bears had been placed on the federal Endangered Species list as a threatened animal and little was known about the bruins.
But that was about to change.
“We’d trap them with foot snares, which could be pretty interesting,” Thier said. “We did a lot of things that I’m glad we survived. We were working in the Cabinets in 1979 and ’80 and I had caught a yearling griz in a snare at the head of Chippewa Creek. Its mother was there and it was a very scary situation, but we got out of it somehow.”
A few years later, Thier ended up in Colorado after a bow hunter chasing elk killed an attacking grizzly in the San Juan Mountains. Grizzlies were thought to be extinct there since the early 1950s, but after Ed Wiseman’s encounter, the Colorado Division of Wildlife wanted Thier and Mace to see if there were others.
“There were four of us and we looked for evidence, but the digs we found were old and the newer ones were made by black bears,” Thier said.
After a few years working in wildlife and forestry for Plum Creek Timber Co. in the early 1980s, Thier was laid off and he ended up working with Wayne Kasworm, a grizzly biologist who still works for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Their trapping efforts established that a breeding pair of grizzlies did exist in the Cabinet Mountains. A 29-year-old female was caught in 1983 and a 28-year-old male was caught a few years later. After a 12-year-old male griz was caught in the Libby Creek area, DNA testing determined the two older grizzlies were its parents.
Thier went to work in the Yaak Mountains to determine the effects of hunting on black bears.
Thier learned that open roads helped create an over-harvest of bears, but he also learned something a lot more significant.
“I caught a 400-pound male grizzly in the first foot snare I set. I put a radio telemetry collar on it and after I caught another and went back to Wayne for another collar, he didn’t believe me at first.
“I ended up catching five grizzlies in the Yaak and that determined there was a resident population of grizzlies there,” Thier said. “That led to us capturing a grizzly in British Columbia and bringing it to the Yaak to help the population.
“It was very controversial, but she ended up having young and grandchildren,” Thier said.
his work with the Fish & Wildlife Service became more about spending time with lawyers than working with bears.
“The lawsuits by animal rights groups piled up and a tremendous amount of money was wasted on lawyers,” he said.
When a biologist position with Fish, Wildlife & Parks became available in 1994, Thier was ready to make a change, mostly for the sake of his marriage. He and Lynn Johnson, a Fish & Wildlife Service biologist, had wed in 1992.
“I was living in Stevensville and she was living in Trego, so when the FWP opening came along I really wanted it,” Thier said.
Working at the Region 1 office in Kalispell allowed Thier to work with all types of wildlife, including from some of the smallest - least weasel - to the largest, moose, elk and even caribou.
“There hadn’t been evidence of a least weasel here in Montana since 2000, but then one turned up and another. It’s been interesting documenting them,” Thier said.
He also was able to tag along with John Squires, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, when he studied lynx.
Thier, 64, said a health scare three years ago when he nearly bled to death while battling non-Hodgkins Lymphoma was a real eye-opener.
“There are things to do around the property and I’ve only been able to get together with my four brothers at hunting camp in Wisconsin twice, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Thier said he will continue to teach hunter and bowhunter education, which he has done for more than 20 years.
He will also continue to organize and run the Ryan Wagner Memorial Ice Fishing Derby that’s held on Murphy Lake the second Saturday in February.
“I’ve been able to do a lot of neat stuff and I enjoy the people I’ve worked with here. I’ve loved working with Leonard (Howke) at the game check station,” Thier said. “I think they are an extremely dedicated group of people, one of the finest outfits in Montana.”
Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org