CHOTEAU — If and when they lose federal protection, grizzly bears on the Rocky Mountain Front face an uncertain future.
The questions puzzling members at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee's summer meeting went far beyond whether to have a hunting season. Although grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem remain two or three years away from potential removal from Endangered Species Act oversight, residents in and around Choteau made it clear the bears' presence was already an issue.
"We're having more and more issues with grizzlies moving into territory they haven't occupied for quite some time," Valier rancher Gene Curry said during a panel discussion on future bear management. "I grew up west of Browning, and grizzly bears never entered anyone's mind. I used to be on my hands and knees crawling through brush to get to fishing holes. Now when my grandchildren go out to catch their horses in the morning, they have to think about grizzly bears. I had five of them in the yard one morning."
When a top predator weighing upwards of 600 pounds and able to out-sprint a horse starts hanging around the house, people notice. Grizzlies were hunted and trapped to near-extinction before getting listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. Since then, their populations have grown to the point they no longer hide in remote pockets of the Rocky Mountains. Many have started exploring the plains between Choteau and Great Falls, which was their preferred home before white settlers turned the prairie into farms and ranches.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee has about two dozen member agencies, including state and federal wildlife managers, Forest Service and National Park Service representatives, and Canadian participants. It has divided grizzly habitat into several recovery zones, the largest of which surround Yellowstone National Park and the Northern Continental Divide.
About 1,000 grizzlies now live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). They concentrate in Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, but also roam in the Mission Mountain Wilderness, Flathead Indian Reservation and Rattlesnake Wilderness north of Missoula.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has about 700 grizzlies, but it is further along in the delisting process. Its draft final rule was released in December, and its bears could be delisted by the end of 2017.
Montana, Idaho and Wyoming wildlife agencies had to draft hunting rules for grizzlies as part of the delisting process. But Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams said any trophy hunting season would still have to go through a lengthy public process.
"It's a mistake to focus on hunting rather than conservation of the species," Williams said. "Hunting is a piece of this, but we're not there yet. It will be controversial."
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Panel moderator Chris Smith of Wildlife Management Institute said the NCDE delisting process should be done in five years. A conservation strategy explaining how many grizzlies must survive to keep the population stable, what to do with problem bears and how to manage human activities in bear habitat should be finished by April 2018. The delisting rule should be published in the Federal Register in August 2018, starting another extensive public review process. Barring lawsuit delays, wildlife managers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming would take over grizzly supervision on Jan. 1, 2020.
"You've got to build relationships, and I don't think your relationships are where they need to be," Teton County Commissioner Jim Hodgskiss told the panel. "Response time is critical. There are no trees out here except for the shelter belts around people's farms. That's where the bears bed down for the day. There's 80 acres of sunflowers a mile from my house. You drive by there, and six heads pop up. They're like kids in a candy store, eating cookies."
That prompted British Columbia Environment Ministry representative Tony Hamilton to raise a conundrum: What if the natural food base isn't big enough to support the present grizzly population? Sunflowers and beehives provide attractive nutrition for grizzlies. Does that mean the agricultural lands they roam might be considered part of their habitat?
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly recovery coordinator Hillary Cooley said the bears' recovery zones were drawn in the 1980s and have not been expanded beyond their backcountry isolation. But part of the reason Tuesday's meeting was held in Choteau was to recognize how grizzlies affect countryside far beyond their old boundaries.
Blackfeet Tribal medicine chief James St. Goddard argued the bears deserved far more protection than the committee seemed interested in providing.
"They've got a gun to my grizzly's head," St. Goddard said during public comment. "All of this is because of money. This is wrong what you're doing to the grizzly. I could pay you when the government pays me all the trillions of dollars they owe me. I think you guys should come to your senses."
St. Goddard's comments illuminated a split within the Blackfeet community. Tribal Fish and Wildlife Chief Donna Rutherford represented the tribal leadership on the panel discussion, and said the Tribal Business Council was not opposed to delisting grizzly bears, although it also did not support allowing anyone to hunt them on the Blackfeet Reservation.
Gary Burnett of the Blackfoot Challenge, a land-management group based around the southern end of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex (and not related to the Blackfeet Indian Tribe) observed that the solution to grizzly bear might not be what most people are expecting.
"What's at risk here is livelihoods and bears," Burnett said. "Somehow we're going to have to look for that shared value. Hunting and non-hunting — we're not here to debate those issues. There are other things at risk if we can't come to solutions on sustainable bear populations and people's livelihoods. The shared value is conflict reduction, not coexistence."