Grizzly bear managers sat side-by-side at the Augusta Community Center in June, listening and answering questions for nearly two hours from a restless crowd gathered to talk increasing numbers of the bruins.
Attendees voiced concerns over human safety and livestock conflicts, asked how many bears now occupy the prairie east of the Rocky Mountain Front and where the federal government stands on delisting. But in the world of grizzlies, an animal that can be both revered and yet polarizing at the same time, answers are seldom simple.
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Officials such as Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Hank Worsech and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear coordinator Hilary Cooley, often delved into the uncertainty of challenging regulatory processes, past legal decisions and strongly divided opinion around the management of the iconic species.
Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras stood in front of the crowd and offered her assessment of the grizzly debate, pointing to gridlock in Congress as one major hurdle standing in the way.
“(Montana is) prepared to manage grizzly bears but it has become a political issue at the federal level,” she said.
As the grizzly population has grown, so too has the political divide in the country and the state, and the meeting came during a shift in the political landscape. It might be easy to assume that policies around grizzly bears fall along party lines, but that isn't the case, and many of those interviewed for this story still hope to find common ground.
The two attempts to delist grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem came under presidents of both parties, and former Gov. Steve Bullock convened a working group near the end of his administration to offer guidance to state wildlife managers should bears return to state control.
Grizzlies at the federal level
With the election of Democratic President Joe Biden came new appointees overseeing federally protected species — a fact Cooley told the crowd meant she was awaiting direction on grizzlies. Any delisting decision needed to be able to withstand another court challenge, she said.
During a July U.S. Senate hearing, Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines asked Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland if she considered grizzly bears recovered in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems of Montana, citing current populations above targets.
“The ongoing recovery is a remarkable success for the (Endangered Species Act),” Haaland said, adding the law “has done what it’s meant to do.”
Haaland stopped short of support but pledged dialogue with Daines and other GOP senators who introduced a bill in March that would legislatively delist grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone. Similarly to how gray wolves were delisted in the Northern Rockies in 2011, the legislation would restore a 2017 delisting rule currently vacated by a federal judge.
“The grizzly bear has more than recovered and now we have seen that grizzly bear conflicts are on the rise, harming Montana families and ranchers. Secretary Haaland and the Biden Administration must follow the science, delist the grizzly bear, and return management back to the state for the sake of our communities, ranchers, wildlife and the bear itself,” Daines said in a statement. “I have proposed legislation to delist the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and am pushing for a hearing on this needed bill. This shouldn’t be political. I urge Sen. (Jon) Tester to cosponsor my bill and join me in the effort to delist the bear.”
Montana’s lone representative in the House Republican Matt Rosendale in December introduced a bill to delist grizzlies both in the Greater Yellowstone and also in the Norther Continental Divide ecosystem. Maintaining federal listing ignores science showing recovery, he said, blaming "radical environmentalists" for litigating previous delisting attempts.
“This puts the lives of Montanans and the livelihoods of Montana ranchers in jeopardy ," he said in a statement. "It’s high time we follow the science and pass my bill to delist the grizzly bear populations in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems, and return management back to the states.”
Rosendale's bill comes as Gianforte filed a petition with Department of the Interior to delist bears in the Northern Continental Divide. Federal officials have not yet responded.
Tester, a Democrat, has not co-sponsored Daines' bill and his office says he continues to monitor grizzly policy at both the federal and state levels.
“When it comes to wildlife management of any type, Sen. Tester continues to believe we need to follow the science and allow the facts on the ground to dictate decision making, not politics,” a Tester spokesperson said. He has not signed on to any grizzly-related legislation at this time.
“Senator Tester is going to keep pushing to make sure Montana’s grizzly populations are responsibly managed, and will continue prioritizing local efforts like nonlethal predator management and improving habitat corridors that will help get grizzlies stable, fully recovered and off the ESA for good.”
Grizzlies at the state level
Gov. Greg Gianforte’s election shifted Montana’s top executive post to the GOP for the first time in 16 years. Now like neighboring grizzly bear states Idaho and Wyoming, both the governor’s office and the legislature are solid red.
The meeting in Augusta came only a couple of months after Gianforte signed GOP-led laws changing the state’s relationship with federal counterparts in response to conflict bears and, should bears go under state management, expanding when grizzlies could be killed to include threatening livestock. Additional laws where opponents cited concerns over grizzlies included allowing hound hunting of black bears and snaring of wolves, although hunting regulations may include restrictions in grizzly country.
Republican lawmakers also passed a resolution calling for all grizzlies in the entirety of the state to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act – a step further than past resolutions that only called for delisting in recovered areas.
Worsech highlighted the passion around grizzly bears in a recent interview.
“A lot of stuff we deal with is divisive, for lack of a better term,” he said. “On any given day I’m going to upset half the people on any given issue. Does some of this divisiveness play into a political realm right now? Is it really political or is really about the animals sometimes?”
Sen. Bruce “Butch” Gillespie, R-Kevin, carried the resolution as well as Senate Bill 98 which puts in state law that a grizzly could be killed for threatening livestock. As the bears are federally protected, federal law currently applies that does not allow bears to be killed for threatening livestock, but does for predation or threatening human life.
“I take a lot of phone calls from a lot of people on the Rocky Mountain Front and even those out on the plains are concerned with how many bears there are,” he said. “The bill wasn’t to get rid of all the bears but to at least defend ourselves and our property when bears come around and are aggressive.”
Gillespie echoes what many who live in grizzly country say, that if those opposed to delisting had to deal with the bears on a day-to-day basis, they might feel differently. Although it became law, the party-line votes on his legislation were disappointing, he said, adding he believed the message would have had more impact if Democrats voted for it.
“A Democrat’s life is just as valuable as a Republican’s life or a Libertarian’s life,” he said. “I had a lot of friends on the other side that said they sympathized with me, but I don’t know if it’s pressure from a certain party, but they didn’t vote to support me.”
In addition to Gillespie’s legislation, Republicans also passed a bill that reforms the state’s involvement in relocating conflict bears. FWP has historically worked with federal counterparts to respond and trap bears that get into conflicts. Federal authorities then make a call on whether the bear will be relocated or euthanized. Senate Bill 337 limits the state’s involvement should a conflict bear be captured outside of a grizzly bear recovery zone, now leaving it up to federal officials to do the actual release. The bill also directs the state’s wildlife commission to approve relocation areas for bears trapped within recovery zones and released by FWP.
FWP supported the bill, and Worsech said he believes it has gotten the attention of federal officials. But short of delisting, he and counterparts in other states are pushing for changes to federal rules dictating when grizzlies may be killed in the name of self-defense.
“What people are worried about is not so much to go and hunt grizzly bears as the protection part of it,” he said. “... People are just afraid that if they do shoot a grizzly bear, even if they feel it’s self-protection, are they going to lose their ranch in legal fees fighting it?”
Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, spoke out against some of the new grizzly bear legislation, and says he and other Democrats understand the frustrations, but contend the issues are far more nuanced. Flowers is a retired regional manager for FWP and worked on previous delisting efforts for the Yellowstone region.
“As a caucus, I would characterize it as we are following the science, and when we meet the criteria, let’s delist,” he said. “I’d rather see any species in the hands of the state than the federal government. … It’s a responsibility we take really seriously and I think we do a darn good job of it.”
Flowers agrees with some opponents of the legislation that the bills could do more harm than good when it comes to reaching the ultimate goal of delisting. Federal authorities must consider “regulatory mechanisms” in place by the state that limit human-caused grizzly deaths and ensure populations don’t backslide towards threatened or endangered status.
“I think our job is to create a clear runway to make (delisting) happen,” Flowers said. “If it becomes clear down the road that a barrier is one or both of these laws, I’m sure that we’ll be willing to work on both sides of the aisle to provide adequate regulatory mechanisms. If we can meet delisting criteria then absolutely, I think you’ll see Democrats behind it.”
Erin Edge, senior representative with Defenders of Wildlife, felt the laws were flawed in terms of the Endangered Species Act, but also saw less effort to work together in the recent session. She pointed to the majority of public comment and many biologists that opposed the bills contributing to polarization.
“This wasn’t just the environmental community coming out against these bills, so it doesn’t seem like we were heard or even listened to,” she said. “It was just an opportunity for (Republicans) to run with it and they did. As the years progress I think we’ll start to see some of the fallout from these bills and I think it’s important for the public to understand some of the possible ramifications.”
Edge, like Gillespie and Flowers, hopes to see more bipartisanship in the future and believes state lawmakers could get there.
“I feel strongly that there is common ground,” she said. “When you get this kind of extreme lawmaking or management it polarizes people. … I do think there are places we can come to an agreement and I can only hope we’ll continue working in those kinds of collaborations.”
Missoulian reporter Rob Chaney contributed to this story.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.