One problem with grizzly bears is they don’t stay where you put them.
The state and federal leaders at Tuesday’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) grizzly meeting spent most of the day pondering what to do with bears that have wandered far from the 10-million-acre recovery zone those managers oversee.
A record number of grizzlies got hit by cars on Highway 93 in 2018, outside the western boundary of the main population monitoring area. Another killed a calf near Two Dot, more than 100 air miles east of the eastern boundary. A female with cubs has been denning in the Salish Mountains south of Trego, halfway between the NCDE and the smaller Cabinet-Yaak recovery area. And most notoriously, a young grizzly dug up a putting green on a golf course just outside of Stevensville, between the NCDE and the Bitterroot recovery area.
“We very quickly get outside our footprint,” NCDE vice chairman Randy Arnold, who supervises Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 2 in Missoula. “We can be super-coordinated around the NCDE, but a big part of the conversation today is what about all this other stuff?”
The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem extends from the Canadian border through Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex almost to the edge of Missoula, along with parts of the Flathead and Blackfeet Indian Reservations. It’s estimated to hold around 1,000 grizzly bears.
However, 2018 appears headed toward a record for NCDE grizzly mortalities, with more than 100 killed or removed from the ecosystem. Along with all grizzlies in the Lower 48 states, those bears are classified as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had intended to start delisting the NCDE by the end of 2018. However, FWS grizzly bear recovery coordinator Hillary Cooley said on Tuesday those plans are indefinitely postponed.
In September, a federal judge derailed a similar delisting plan for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) that includes parts of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming around Yellowstone National Park. Cooley said the NCDE delisting plan was similar enough to the Greater Yellowstone plan that the agency is concerned it might fail a legal challenge. Federal officials have until Dec. 21 to decide whether to appeal the district court ruling or take a different approach.
Meanwhile, those NCDE grizzlies are making new acquaintances far outside the wilderness and park areas where they’re most protected. FWP Region 1 bear manager Tim Manley trapped one this summer near a McGregor Lake cabin west of Kalispell along U.S. Highway 2. It was collared and released on the west side of Lake Koocanusa. A poacher shot and killed it, throwing the radio collar in a ditch near Libby.
“How do we keep bears alive in these intervening areas, where people aren’t used to having bears around?” Manley asked the committee.
Several ranchers attending the meeting criticized the committee for paying more attention to grizzly needs than people. Sweetgrass rancher Maggie Nutter said people were boarding up their children’s bedroom windows to be safe from bears.
“For generations we’ve had freedom to roam our ranch without fear of predators,” Nutter said. “How can you compensate them for the loss of that freedom? An electric fence won’t keep families and children safe outside. Your bears are more important than my freedom.”
The bear presence also hurts ranchers financially. Montana Livestock Loss Board reports at this point in 2018 show grizzlies had killed 60 cattle and were suspected of taking 20 more, for a total value of $66,134.
“Five years ago, we had 25 investigations for grizzly bear depredation events,” said federal Wildlife Services representative Kraig Glazier. “It’s steadily increased. This year we had 138 depredations on livestock. That’s the first year it’s ever surpassed wolves in the state.”
Former Blackfoot Challenge director Gary Burnett now leads a coalition of land-trust organizations in between the NCDE and GYE recovery areas. He said his current challenge was finding ways to link bears to the places they need to find food and safety while respecting the landowners’ right to safety and self-determination.
“We’re not here to debate whether bears should be here or not — we took that off the table a long time ago,” Burnett said. “Now it’s about whether you’re having conflicts or not.”
Blackfoot rancher David Mannix added that to come to the table, he first must have trust that the advocates on the other side have his interests at heart too.
“In this day and age, we aren’t all that good at relationships,” Mannix said. “There are a lot of different values. I grew up thinking about cows. When I thought about water, it was for irrigation to grow feed for my cows, not for fish or lynx. We all need to have tolerance and empathy and respect for other values.”