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Living with bears: Governor’s grizzly advisory council begins work on recommendations

Posted: 11:10 AM, Dec 09, 2019
Updated: 2019-12-09 13:11:24-05
Living with bears: Governor’s grizzly advisory council begins work on recommendations

Better education on all the players and methods for dealing with grizzly bears may go a long way toward making Montana a better place for bears.

On Thursday, the governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council wrapped up their two-day meeting in Missoula with a lot of information and a little concern that they were falling behind the timeline to come up with recommendations.

“My biggest thoughts are on the next steps. A start on recommendations. Let’s get started. They may be rough, but we have to start somewhere,” said council member Kristen Kipp of Browning.

They’ve met three times since September, but the 18-member council only has until August to have recommendations on the governor’s desk. On Thursday morning, Gov. Steve Bullock stressed the importance of the council’s mission and encouraged the council to forward what recommendations they could even before the deadline.

But the first few meetings had to be dedicated to bringing the council up to speed on all aspects of grizzly bear connectivity, genetics and conflict resolution.

The Missoula meeting focused on the last, and council members heard about how Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear specialists respond to calls, how they work with federal and tribal specialists, and how a few nonprofit organizations use education and other tools to reduce bear conflicts in nonlethal ways.

FWP bear specialists from Missoula, the Flathead and the Rocky Mountain Front and tribal specialists detailed their experiences: how some situations can be dealt with over the phone, such as telling a homeowner they need to remove their birdfeeder, but others require their presence in spite of having to cover hundreds of miles between calls.

Flathead biologist Tim Manley said he had to call in the Cabinet-Yaak biologist a few times this summer because he had his hands full dealing with 56 bears in the Flathead Valley.

The panelists made an impression on the council, and many agreed that FWP bear specialists, who day and night respond to citizens’ calls about bears, are overworked and underpaid.

Council member Erin Edge said the consistent message was a lack of manpower to manage bears to the level that can help instill more tolerance.

“We need to think creatively about funding and resources,” Edge said. “How can we put our brains together to create a solid foundation for all of those people doing great things on the ground?”

Council member Trina Jo Bradley, a Valier rancher, was impressed with all the work going on behind the scenes that she hadn’t known about but wished there was a central place for all Montanans to learn about their options.

“There’s no 800 number that you can call. Not all NGOs are as easy to see as Defenders (of Wildlife). In order to do a service to our state, we need to make those resources more known and more available,” Bradley said. “Education goes along with that. Sometimes, people are less tolerant and socially accepting of Defenders of Wildlife than they are of grizzly bears because they don’t want to be associated with (Defenders). I used to be one of those people.”

The need for better education on Montana’s resources was demonstrated by the reaction of council member Lorents Grosfield, but he also wanted to hear what Wyoming and Idaho are doing.

“I gotta say I’m amazed at all the things that are going on in western Montana. I live in Big Timber, and I’ve never heard of any of these things,” Grosfield said.

Council member Cole Mannix and others wanted to explore the idea of adding “a multiplier” for ranchers. In Wyoming, if a rancher loses some livestock and one death was positively identified as caused by a grizzly, the rancher can be reimbursed for up to 3.5 lost animals. But to qualify for the multiplier in Montana, Mannix said, maybe the rancher would have to participate in a conflict avoidance program such as the carcass pickup service run by the Blackfoot Challenge.

“In western Montana, there’s a lot of collaborative group infrastructure to build on in terms of prevention and preparedness,” Mannix said. “The conflicts likely will always be with us. So how do you make those things liveable?”

Before leaving Missoula, the council asked the biologists their thoughts on the effectiveness of a grizzly bear hunt.

Rocky Mountain Front biologist Mike Madel was the only one who was working when FWP had a hunting season in 1986-1991. He told the council that FWP created a damage hunt where they marked problem bears and allowed public hunters to kill up to three.

“That’s a very difficult situation to do. We got a lot of negative feedback from the public,” Madel said. “It can be effective. We removed three grizzly bears.”

Then FWP tried a five-week hunt in the spring when more male bears start moving around. Three bears more were killed that season, and then a lawsuit shut the season down.

Missoula biologist Jamie Jonkel said some people dream about killing a grizzly bear so maybe a tag or two in some areas would help build tolerance because those hunters would be satisfied.

Manley said that some people want a hunt because they think it will reduce conflict. The situation with black bears shows that’s not the case. In Region 1, hunters kill 500 to 600 black bears a year, but Manley still had to deal with 23 black bears getting into garbage and apple trees in Whitefish.

“I’m not opposed to grizzly bear hunting. But to expect that just because we have a grizzly bear season, it’s going to resolve the conflicts, that’s not going to happen,” Manley said.

Both tribal bear managers said the Blackfeet Nation and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes would not have hunts.

The next meeting of the Advisory Council is in Polson on Jan. 14-15, when they’ll learn more about the hunt and settle on the meaning of words such as “tolerance,” “recovery,” and “connectivity.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com .