Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed two bills reshaping the state’s response to managing grizzly bears.
The governor recently signed Senate Bill 98 from Sen. Bruce “Butch” Gillespie, R-Ethridge, and Senate Bill 337 from Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta. The bills were two of a number of controversial wildlife bills pushed by Republicans, who hold strong majorities in both chambers, and have been signed into law by their fellow Republican governor.
Late last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its first assessment of grizzlies in a decade. The assessment found that bear populations have increased, but that federal protections under the Endangered Species Act are still warranted.
SB 98 makes a declarative statement that grizzly bears should be delisted. The bill then says that under state law, a person who kills a grizzly bear that is attacking, killing or threatening to kill a person or livestock has an “absolute” defense against being charged with a crime.
Supporters of the bill included ranchers along the Rocky Mountain Front who have been outspoken as the bears expand east onto the plains.
But opponents of the bill pointed out that the “threatening” livestock provision conflicts with federal law. As long as the bears remain federally protected, state law is trumped. The bill could give ranchers a false impression of when they can and cannot shoot bears in defense of life or property, critics have said.
Gianforte announced the signing of SB 98 on Wednesday.
“Grizzly bear populations are recovered in Montana,” a spokesperson for the governor said. “If grizzly bear management is turned over to the state, this bill ensures Montanans can protect themselves and their livestock from growing predator populations.”
SB 337 also makes declarations that grizzly bears are recovered and should be put under state management. The bill then makes two important changes on how Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks will respond to issues with the bears.
The first provision of SB 337 dictates that should FWP capture a bear, it may only relocate it to areas pre-approved by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission.
The second provision of the bill restricts the state’s role in relocating bears captured during conflicts. Specifically, the bill allows FWP to respond to a conflict and capture a bear. If the bear is captured outside of a federal recovery zone, the law prohibits the state from relocating the animal, meaning federal authorities would be responsible for moving or euthanizing.
Supporters of the bill, which included FWP, said it delineates a clear process for how state wildlife managers will respond to conflicts.
Opponents contend that SB 337, as well as SB 98, will result in more grizzly bears being killed and thus harm the chances of federal delisting. In the case of SB 337, reduced state cooperation means an increased chance that captured bears will be euthanized. With SB 98, it would add an additional reason bears could be killed under state management.
Gianforte signed the bill in late April.
“With grizzly populations recovered in Montana, Governor Gianforte supports delisting the bear and turning over management to the state,” a spokesperson for the governor said. “Until that happens, this bill clarifies the respective state and federal responsibilities for grizzly bear management.”
Management of grizzly bears has long been debated in Montana and neighboring states of Idaho and Wyoming.
The Legislature also passed Senate Joint Resolution 18 during the recent session. The resolution calls for Montana’s congressional delegation to work to remove all grizzlies in Montana from the ESA and to exempt the decision from judicial review.
Federal officials have twice delisted grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, leaving intact threatened status in the rest of the state and throughout the remainder of the bears’ range in Wyoming and Idaho. Both times, those decisions have been overturned in federal court, returning the bears to the ESA.
In addition to the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide which hold the bulk of bears, smaller grizzly recovery zones with populations include the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk. The Bitterroot Mountains along the Montana-Idaho border are also a recovery zone, but currently void of resident bears and only see sporadic reports.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.