DUPUYER — It took an electric fence to show John Hayne how often sheep give birth to twin lambs.
“I didn't realize how many lambs we lost until we got the fence up this year,” the Dupuyer rancher said. “We had 100 more than last year. Often sheep have twins but you didn’t know. You see the ewe with one and you think everything's fine.”
Grizzly bears had been prowling the lambing yard where John and Leanne Hayne raised 700 sheep, picking off newborns before they got counted. Occasionally, they’d grab an adult. John recalled coming out to check the flock one night and seeing a lamb running around erratically. Shining his spotlight, he saw the grizzly with the ewe in its mouth. The sheep was still struggling, until the bear got caught in the light. Then it shook the sheep to death in its jaws and ran away. The whole incident lasted about 10 seconds.
“They're such a powerful, fast animal,” John said.
Leanne Hayne grew up near Dupuyer, and never saw a grizzly bear in her childhood. The couple began raising sheep 33 years ago, but didn’t make much money. Eighteen years ago, they started selling yarn from the wool, which proved more profitable. But just when people started getting interested in knitting, the Haynes started having bear problems.
“The coyotes are the worst, but the bears are the most dramatic," Leanne said. “Sometimes they kill a lot at one time. We had to either stop or do something.”
The Haynes became among the first adopters of aggressive electric fencing to protect their livelihood on the Rocky Mountain Front. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Defenders of Wildlife and other groups all contributed grant dollars, which the Haynes matched with their labor. The first fence went up six years ago around a bedding area west of Highway 89. The latest went around the lambing grounds east of the highway.
“Now the bears don't get in,” John Hayne said. “The coyotes don't get in. The fences are labor-intensive, but once they get shocked, they never go through again. I haven’t lost a lamb since.”
Leanne said the family also fenced about four acres around their home, so they could feel safe in their yard. As competent as they’ve become in keeping grizzly bears away, they still don’t feel secure.
“I don't like living with them,” Leanne said. “That hasn't changed in 33 years. It’s changed the way we live. People just aren't comfortable with it anymore. They're a nuisance.
“But this is a very natural place. There's all kinds of wildlife. There's skunks and weasels and raccoons and badgers that cause problems. Having a large predator is so much more spectacular. Thirty-three years later, I'm still afraid.”
The Haynes told their tale to two dozen state and federal wildlife managers who serve on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. Last week, the group held its summer session in Choteau, and spent Wednesday on a listening tour along the Rocky Mountain Front.
The 34-year-old committee oversees efforts to help the grizzly bear recover from its “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act. It brings together representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, four state wildlife agencies, two Canadian provinces, several non-governmental organizations and a rotating cast of researchers, advocates, academics and local governmental officials.
That energy gets focused on grizzly bears in five ecosystems: Tiny populations of bears in the Northern Cascades of Washington, Cabinet-Yaak-Selkirks of northern Idaho and Montana, the Selway-Bitterroot Range on the Montana-Idaho border; and two major concentrations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
About 700 bears live in the Yellowstone ecosystem. The committee finished its work studying that population and recommended a recovery strategy in January. The U.S. Interior Department should publish a final rule delisting the Yellowstone area grizzlies and handing their management over to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming state wildlife agencies next week. Barring a legal challenge, which almost certainly will occur, the final rule would take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
Another 1,000 grizzlies live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem that covers the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and Glacier National Park. They comprise a separate “Distinct Population Segment” under endangered species management, and have a separate delisting process.
Wednesday’s tour sought out people in the 40-mile-wide strip of farms and ranches that border the abrupt eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains.
“In the (northern Continental Divide area) there’s private land right up against where the bears are,” said Hillary Cooley, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator who joined Wednesday’s field trip. “It was really great to be on the ground and see the area, talk to those people who are living with bears, and hear how they deal with conflict bears. I’ve been hearing about it for a long time, but it’s a different thing to see it.”
David Waldren wanted the committee members to see the Pondera Colony cornfield.
The Hutterite colony halfway between Dupuyer and Valier plants about 135 acres of corn. When it’s ripe, he said, the grizzlies move in.
“Bear management has been very successful on the Rocky Mountain Front at shoving a bunch of grizzlies down our throats," Waldner told the yellow school bus-load of bear managers. “In late August, September through October, there's going to be eight to 10 grizzlies living in this field, trampling more corn than they eat. If I was a grizzly, I sure wouldn't leave this smorgasbord day in and day out. In 2012, we found a hole excavated two times as big as that bus, lined with corn. The only thing we could figure was they planned on hibernating here.
“Three years ago, a female denned in the service berry bushes on the edge of the field,” Waldner continued. “They trapped her once, and she came right back with twins. Where will they try to find a home? This is a natural place for a home. It would do no good to trap them again. Another would move right in.”
The tour passed four Hutterite colonies on its route. Each of the religious communities operates a large, self-sustaining farm complex growing multiple crops and raising a variety of livestock. Each has its own relationship with grizzly bears and the agencies that manage them.
Montana FWP Region 4 Supervisor Gary Bertellotti said the Birch Creek Colony adjacent to Waldren’s Pondera Colony has been open to preventive measures like electric fences, and had very few bear conflicts as a result. Pondera has insisted on the removal of problem bears, and declined offers to put up fencing. Several miles away, the Rockport Colony has tried a third variation, fencing some places like its refuse dumps and turkey yards, but not its dairy barns or residential area.
Rockport Colony has "done practically everything they can with electric fences, but they’re so close to the Front, bears are there from the time they come out of the den in spring to when they go back to their dens in fall,” Bertellotti said. The grizzlies were so accustomed to raiding the colony, they tunneled under the first electric fences. That threat has faded, but the colony still requires constant vigilance to keep the fences operating, the livestock protected, and residents safe.
In Valier, they remember the Halloween Bear of 2012.
“There had been a grain spill, and a bear was sighted,” Bertellotti recalled. “Then Halloween came along, and we had all these kids out at night carrying bags of candy. We had three police officers and the county sheriff patrolling all night with the trick-or-treaters. The bear moved west of here and eventually denned on the Front. But Valier seems to be the focal point.”
The 500 people who live next to Lake Francis no longer feel safe to walk along the shoreline trail, according to Mayor Ray Bukoveckas. The elementary school has bear warning signs posted on its playground fence. Campground hosts hand out bear-safety brochures to travelers staying at the town’s tent site.
“We have to protect ourselves somehow,” Bukoveckas said. “That’s how the bear patrol got started.”
Valier’s volunteer bear patrol has seven members who’ve offered to do what they can to keep residents safe from grizzlies.
“The FWP can’t get here in an hour, so we observe the bear and try to get him out of town headed in the right direction,” bear patrol member Terry VandenBos said. “We can’t shoot in town anyway, but we can’t let them sleep under the water tower. There’s two daycares on either side.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, FWP biologists did recommend some more tactics, including training videos developed in Alaska for defending villages against marauding brown and polar bears. The videos show how to read a bear’s intention to fight or flee, and discuss use of trained dogs and similar methods to discourage bears.
But urban combat with bears doesn’t make anyone happy. Many of the bears prowling near Valier are females with cubs. Set a trap in town and catch one of the cubs first, and you have a furious mother grizzly.
“I’m really concerned about people trying to push bears out of town,” Bertellotti said. “If something goes wrong, those guys will get themselves hung.”
“If this fails, it will fail miserably,” Hartwell agreed. “If it succeeds, hopefully other towns will pick up on it.”
Bukoveckas said if the bears were delisted, and a limited bear hunt was allowed, the bears would start to learn to avoid humans.
“Once the hunt starts, maybe they'll think man is something to stay away from," Bukoveckas said. “I realize that's going to take four to five years.”
Hunting grizzly bears is one option that could become available after grizzlies shift from federal to state management. Montana, Idaho and Wyoming all drafted hunting season rules leading up to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly delisting. Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem bears would go through a similar but separate process that’s still years from completion.
States also would need policies for dealing with problem bears that kill livestock, menace people or become habituated to human food sources. FWS grizzly recovery coordinator Cooley said while those fine details have yet to be worked out, they all must follow a basic principle: Each ecosystem’s population of grizzly bears can’t fall below a sustainable threshold.
The grizzly committee meeting in Choteau lasted three days. On Thursday, fifth-generation rancher Kirk Moore informed the committee that one of his saddle horses had gored itself on a metal pipe in a panic to get away from a grizzly seen on the ranch Tuesday night.
“I don’t mind seeing grizzlies,” Moore said. “I love wildlife. But we are seeing a highly increased load of bears. It’s time that we do something. No more DNA studies. You folks have the data. Please help us in the field with these problems.”
Bertellotti recalled one incident that illustrated the complexity of grizzly attitudes. Every year, the big bears move farther east of the Rocky Mountain Front. They’re now regularly reported around Fort Benton and beyond, including the land of one particular rancher who wasn’t shy about letting the FWP supervisor know his opinions.
Staff warned Bertellotti that this man was on his way in, and he braced for outrage. Instead, the rancher pulled out photos of the bears near a big tree on his property. This was the same tree, he said, that members of Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery climbed to escape a grizzly when they explored the area two centuries ago. He was thrilled the keystone predators were back on the plains where the captains’ journals first reported them.
“That’s the tightrope we walk, trying to balance everybody’s interests and not disrespect anyone’s point of view,” Bertellotti said. “And that tightrope gets smaller and smaller as the bears expand farther and farther out.”