KALISPELL— This summer’s grizzly bear management to-do list leads off with finding ways to reduce the number of bears dying of unnatural causes. But that raises a dilemma: Do you go after the causes or the solutions?
The choice could lean toward fixing an issue like poaching, which killed the highest percentage of bears in 2018. Or the solution could aim at saving the highest number of bears, perhaps by reducing roadkill.
It could concentrate on saving bears inside their core area (where they’re already numerous) or in the plains and urban areas where they’re recently appearing (and their activities are most controversial).
“If one of these things brings the highest mortality and we don’t have a solution, that forces us to ask the tough questions,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2 Supervisor Randy Arnold told a spring meeting of Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly bear managers on Tuesday. “If we keep saying we can’t affect that, then we have to ask: why not?”
The conference of state, federal, tribal and related agency bear managers must report to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee later this summer on how it prioritizes conflict reduction. Last year was an outlier year for grizzly deaths in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
FWP bear biologist Cecily Costello said the agency knew of at least 45 grizzly deaths inside the 16,000-square-mile demographic monitoring area, which comprises Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and nearby areas. Another seven died outside that area, mainly in the plains east of the Rocky Mountain Front. And state biologists assume at least another 44 grizzlies died last year which were never found, bringing the estimated total to 96 for 2018.
Nevertheless, Costello said those deaths did not exceed the conservation strategy’s threshold for a recovered population.
“We still believe the population is on an increasing trajectory at this point inside the DMA,” Costello said. “Even with the high death numbers we saw last year.”
About one in every five unnatural grizzly deaths since 1975 occurred by poaching or other malicious activity. Another 15% died after bear managers determined a grizzly was a safety hazard. Automobiles and trains killed 13%. Livestock conflicts and self-defense incidents each accounted for 12%. Black bear hunters mistakenly killed another 8% of the grizzlies in the file. And one in 10 died in unclassifiable circumstances, like drowning in an irrigation canal.
The statistics can mislead if not teased apart by time. For example, trains killed many grizzlies along the border of Glacier National Park during the 1980s and '90s because frequent derailments left huge deposits of spilled grain that attracted scavengers to the rail lines. That issue has been addressed, to the point that most transportation-related grizzly deaths now come from automobiles on highways.
Marias River Livestock Association Vice President Trina Jo Bradley said ranchers and farmers needed reassurance that bear management considered the safety of their families and livestock.
“If it’s a bear dying or my 11-year-old daughter dying, I’m going to make that decision quickly,” Bradley said about dealing with bear threats. “Sometimes you just have to.”
Grizzly protection advocate Mike Bader suggested the agencies take a harder look at how they enforce road closures. He cited the findings of Canadian grizzly studies, which determined that 82% of poached bears died within 500 meters of a road.
“When you’re looking to curb poaching, you can’t change the attitude but can reduce the opportunity,” Bader said. But he added that depends on keeping vehicles off closed roads and not adding new roads to remote areas grizzlies use to raise cubs or feed.
FWP grizzly specialist Mike Madel noted that education and prevention had very different needs. While a trainer can hold classes on bear spray use anywhere with an audience relatively cheaply, building an electric fence to keep grizzlies out of a rancher’s calving grounds was an expensive and specific project.
“In the end it’s not just about saving bears,” Costello said. “It’s about generating more support for having bears among the public.
“We’ve made progress since the 1970s. I think the public has taken on the responsibility of living in bear country. We don’t have the same attitudes in the country as we had in the ‘70s.”