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Experts: Grizzly bills put delisting at risk

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Grizzly band cubs

A grizzly and cubs roam the wilds of Montana. Sightings of bears have steadily increased over the past decade as the animals expand their range.

Several grizzly bear management bills that made it through the Legislature’s transmittal deadline could make it unlikely that grizzlies will ever get off the Endangered Species List, according to wildlife experts.

The proposed laws also appear to run contrary to Montana’s commitments to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee management guidelines and to the recommendations of a citizen’s advisory council on grizzly management.

Coupled with proposed hunting changes for wolves and black bears that are likely to get grizzly bears killed in the process, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly recovery coordinator Chris Servheen said the resulting laws would block any chance the federal government would allow the state to manage grizzlies.

“All these bills together eliminate (Montana) Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ ability to limit mortality of grizzlies,” Servheen said. “Under these laws, all those bears would be dead. That assures grizzly bears will never be delisted, and institutionalizes federal control of the bears. Is that what people want?”

The measures include two by Rep. Bruce Gillespie, R-Ethridge. Senate Bill 98 would declare that killing a grizzly bear which was “threatening to kill a person or livestock is an absolute defense (against) being charged with a crime.”

During testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Jan. 21, several ranchers spoke of their fear and financial difficulty dealing with grizzlies that menaced them and their sheep and cattle.

Among them was Trina Bradley, a Valier rancher who also served on the state's Grizzly Bear Advisory Council. She spoke of the distress of trying to raise cows and sheep, never knowing when a large carnivore might eat one. Giving people more latitude to defend their animals would go a long way toward building social tolerance for bears, she said.  

“We’re not going to treat this bill as a free-for-all shooting spree on grizzlies,” Bradley testified. “We simply want to protect what is ours.”

But the discussion also included Nick Gevock from the Montana Wildlife Federation, who served with Bradley on the Grizzly Advisory Council. Gevock noted SB 98 removed a part of state law that the U.S. Department of Interior specifically requested as a prerequisite for delisting grizzlies: the prohibition against killing bears considered “threatening” to livestock.

“We had to have that to demonstrate we had regulatory ability to prevent excessive mortality,” Gevock said. “Otherwise we could exceed mortality limits set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If this bill becomes law, we will never delist grizzly bears in Montana.”

Gillespie’s Senate Joint Resolution 18 calls for doing just that — as a message from the Legislature to Congress. It advocates for delisting the grizzly populations in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems and re-evaluation of the usefulness of the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem “due to public safety and economic challenges.”

It calls for new conflict management plans in the NCDE, sufficient federal funding for grizzly management while the bears remain under federal oversight, and encouragement for the FWS to revisit its recovery plans for the Cabinet-Yaak and Bitterroot recovery zones “to include the latest science related to genetic connectivity and population targets.”

Grizzlies have been protected as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 1975. An estimated 50,000 grizzlies inhabited the continental United States between Canada and Mexico before Lewis and Clark explored the region in 1805. By the mid-20th century, that figure was down to around 500.

As part of the grizzly recovery plan, state and federal wildlife managers designated six ecosystems, or recovery zones, where the dwindling populations could be nurtured. The NCDE lies entirely within Montana, and has about 1,000 grizzlies between Glacier National Park and Missoula along the Continental Divide. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has an estimated 750 grizzlies in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho surrounding Yellowstone National Park. The other four ecosystems each have about 50 or fewer grizzlies, with the Bitterroot and North Cascades both having no confirmed resident bears.

In support of his bill, Gillespie said residents along the Rocky Mountain Front where he lives “felt stuck in a time capsule” where the grizzlies remain protected under the Endangered Species Act, but people now suffer getting killed or mauled along with lots of property damage from bears.

“The grizzly has moved onto private residential property, presenting many human safety concerns,” Gillespie said. “Montana citizens have a right to protect themselves, their property and livestock from wild animals.”

At the same hearing where Gillespie’s SJ 18 was debated, Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, said his Senate Bill 337 proposed prohibiting the Montana FWP from relocating any grizzly bears captured while causing conflict outside a federal recovery zone. It would also limit FWP relocations within recovery zones to only those places already approved for relocation.

Lang said that would put the burden of grizzly relocation on the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, where he thought it belonged. It was supported by FWP Chief of Staff Quentin Kujula, who said it would comfort many new residents to Montana who were dealing with grizzlies for the first time.

“We’re being clear as a department what our role will or won’t be,” Kujula said. “We will still respond in the moment (to grizzly conflict situations). But if the decision is to relocate, Montana will step back.”

But Servheen said that prohibition went against commitments FWP had made to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, where state wildlife managers handle local conflicts under the oversight of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which doesn’t have local bear managers).

“There’s no problem right now, but this legislation would create a problem,” said Servheen, who became vice president of the Montana Wildlife Federation after retiring from FWS. “To say no bear may be moved (by state bear managers) is a violation of the guidelines that have been in place for 40 years. The end result will be that more bears will die.”

The number of bears dying each year matters because grizzly bears reproduce slower than almost any other mammal in North America. The loss of females of breeding age has particular importance, because a killed sow won’t produce future cubs and may have cubs of the year that won’t survive either.

So while grizzly populations appear to steadily grow since their federal protection in 1975, they can reverse suddenly if human-caused mortality gets too high. That would prevent them from getting designated as a recovered species, or trigger relisting if the protection had been removed.

Servheen said that’s where several other wildlife bills in the 2021 Legislature could have unintended impacts. For example, House Bill 468 by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, would allow hunters to use dogs to chase and kill black bears — something that’s been illegal since 1921. But there’s no place in Montana where black bear hunters can operate without potentially running into grizzly bears, resulting in dangerous and possibly deadly encounters for the humans, dogs and bears. Furthermore, all other backcountry users risk encountering a grizzly bear aggravated by a hound pack, which could have dangerously unpredictable results.

Similarly, Servheen said several bills expanding opportunities to hunt wolves with snares, bait and night-vision equipment had great risk of getting grizzlies killed. Two grizzly bears were injured by wolf neck snares in Idaho last year. And Wyoming does not allow snares for wolf killing at all, due to the high risk of catching the wrong species.

“Montana has been a leader for many years in science-based management in the West,” Servheen said. “If these laws continue, Montana will be another place run by extremists for the benefit of a small minority of people.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this story had the wrong number of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem: it is approximately 1,000 bears. The story also incorrectly titled Quentin Kujula: He is Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks chief of staff.

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