Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and credited to Frank Van Manen.
Bolstered by a political shift in the governor’s office, Republican lawmakers zeroed on legislation this past session aiming to strip grizzly bears of their endangered species protections and shift management efforts to give the state and its residents more autonomy over dealing with conflicts caused by the animal.
Critics say the shift in management efforts will lead to more grizzlies dying and fly in the face of federal protections of the animal. But supporters of the changes say it will help protect people and livestock from threats of a ballooning grizzly population.
“I have a little more faith with the new administration. I think they are starting to pay attention to our situations and the gravity of how bad it is out here,” said Sen. Bruce “Butch” Gillespie, R-Ethridge.
Frustrated by few prospects of delisting the state animal and an increasing threat to livestock, Gillespie carried out two successful legislative efforts this session. Senate Bill 98 allows individuals to fatally shoot bears they perceive to be “threatening” livestock or humans, and Senate Resolution 18 urged Congress to delist grizzlies. A third grizzly bill, Senate Bill 337, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, prohibits Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks from relocating certain bears.
The grizzly population in the lower-48 states has more than doubled since they received federal protections in 1975 — like being off-limits to hunters — that come with being on the endangered species list. However, grizzlies are still considered a threatened species, and conservationists have warned the bills passed this session could unravel rehabilitation efforts of the last 35 years.
But state and congressional lawmakers from Montana say bear populations have swelled too much and have become a costly burden to ranchers and people and are calling for them to be taken off the endangered species list.
“We are hopeful that future management of the bear will follow the science … and not be subject to political whims,” said Republicans Sen. Steve Daines, Rep. Matt Rosendale, and members from the Idaho and Wyoming delegations in an April letter sent to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland urging the delisting of grizzlies. “Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho stand ready to take the lead in protecting the grizzly bear for generations to come, and we stand ready to partner however appropriate to ensure a smooth transition.”
At the state level, Gillespie introduced a resolution calling on Congress to delist the bears, which passed through the House and Senate almost entirely on party lines and is expected to be signed by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte.
“We’ve got to get them off the endangered species list. And even then, it’s not going to be easy living with them,” Gillespie said.
In the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ eyes,’ the recent legislation may make it harder to delist the bears, but the laws come from legislators’ skepticism about the possibility of delisting, so it’s a circular argument, said Ken McDonald, chief of wildlife staff for FWP.
“One of the criteria for delisting is you have to demonstrate you have adequate regulatory mechanisms in place to ensure that species stays recovered,” he said. “And so the point [FWS] was making was these bills reduce that regulatory certainty. And my point was that part of the reason these bills are coming is because legislators are skeptical because delisting hasn’t happened.”
Hilary Cooley, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for FWS, would not comment on specific legislation or whether the bills would impact delisting efforts but said adequate regulatory mechanisms are a factor the FWS evaluates when considering delisting an animal.
“Which means when we delist bears are there commitments, whether it’s regulation or a good sound management plan in place that shows the state is committed to maintaining, for example, mortality limits, so that when we delist, the population is not likely to drop below recovery levels again,” Cooley said.
Since recovery efforts began, grizzlies have met rehabilitation goals in two of the six designated recovery areas established in 1993.
However, the FWS decided to keep their threatened species status in a recent report that studied the animals’ recovery. The agency recognized the gains made. Still, it ruled, “there is enough future uncertainty associated with conservation efforts, such that the grizzly bear in the lower-48 States remains likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all of its range.” Because the FWS must recognize all six recovery zones as one entity, Cooley said it could not remove the threatened status even though the Great Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems have met recovery criteria.
Two previous efforts to delist grizzlies in 2007 and 2017 failed in court. And while the judge laid out steps that could be taken to grant delisting, Nick Gevock said the Trump administration failed to take any action to implement the suggested changes. Gevock is the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Foundation and was one of 18 people selected by former Gov. Steve Bullock to serve on the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council to help guide the future management of grizzlies in the state.
With the political switch in the White House, Cooley said, whether FWS will try to delist in the future is unknown. “We’re hoping to figure that out soon.”
Before the late 1800s, more than 50,000 grizzlies roamed 18 of the current lower 48 states. But, the arrival of European settlers, government-bounty programs, and the destruction of their habitat decimated the populations to a shred of what it was. In 1975, 700 to 800 grizzlies occupied two percent of their former range in the lower 48 states.
Now, around 1,900 bears occupy about 6 percent of their historical territory and are distributed throughout the six recovery areas. More than 1,000 of the population live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which is entirely in Montana, spanning from Glacier National Park south to Missoula. And around 700 inhabit the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in and around Yellowstone National Park.
Parallel with the population growth is the territory the bears roam, which has grown significantly and often overlaps with private land, threatening cattle and sometimes humans. For those reasons, Gillespie and Lang said their bills are necessary.
“It’s a bigger problem than we’ve ever admitted to,” Gillespie said.
While wildlife agencies have successfully worked to reduce conflicts on public lands, conflicts stemming from expanding spill over to private lands has been harder to control.
“While human-grizzly conflicts at developed sites on public lands do occur, the most frequent reason for management removals are conflicts on private lands,” a January 2021 species assessment of grizzlies said, adding, “private lands account for a disproportionate number of bear deaths and conflicts.”
Before last year, Gillespie said he never had to carry a gun, but with the growth in grizzlies, he started. Gillespie’s district spans from the Canadian border south down the east side of the mountain front to the interstate between Great Falls and Helena. “You can’t even walk around in your yard without being afraid of being attacked. And it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, quite often it’s very, very fatal.”
It wasn’t always like that, he said. “With your kids, you never worried about them; they just went out and did their thing. And now they can’t even fish without being harmed.”
Balancing the protection of bears, cattle, and humans is one of FWPs greatest challenges, McDonald said. “As the bears expand, more and more our ability to manage them is getting stretched thinner and thinner, so we’re continually trying to adapt to their expanding population.”
One tool the FWP has to manage conflict with bears is a close working relationship with the FWS. “It takes a coordinated effort in a collaborative way. We need each other,” McDonald said.
The FWS only has two offices in Montana, one in Missoula, which oversees all the recovery zones spread out across the Northwest, and a satellite office in Libby focused on monitoring bears in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk ecosystems. So it’s more effective for state agencies to handle on-the-ground issues like relocating conflict bears.
“We like the states to be doing that, and we give funding; it doesn’t cover everything they do, but we think they’re best positioned to do that because they have people spread throughout the state,” Cooley said.
However, SB337 is likely to have major implications on the way the two agencies work together. FWP does most of the on-the-ground work as they operate now, while FWS oversees the larger picture and directs some FWP grizzly efforts. Under the new bill, FWP will not be allowed to relocate conflict bears found outside of the six designated recovery zones.
Jim Williams, an FWP supervisor, said the change of policy is “the most significant change I’ve seen in my career,” according to the Montana Standard. The policy shift won’t go into effect until 2022, so the two agencies have until then to iron out the details. One of the biggest surprises to Gevock about the bill was support for it by the FWP.
“There were a lot of people who have been engaged in wildlife conservation for decades in Montana who were shocked when FWP supported the bill. It marked a shift of decades of management of grizzly bears,” Gevock said.
In a hearing on the bill Quentin Kujala, chief of staff at FWP, said the department supports the bill because it would add more transparency to the relocation process and would give people more certainty in how the department deals with conflict bears. Kujala did not respond to multiple interview requests on how the SB337 and SB98 will impact the FWPs operations.
Additionally, Gevock said the bill is contrary to Interagency Grizzly Bear Guidelines and will result in the death of more grizzlies.
“We think it lays out an expectation that you’re going to kill bears on the first offense, and we think that’s going to hurt tolerance for grizzly bears and reduce the incentive for people to take preventive measures to avoid conflicts” he said.
SB98 raised similar concerns for Gevock that, like SB337, it will lead to the death of more grizzlies. Under the bill, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Gianforte, people would be permitted under state law to fatally shoot grizzlies if they are believed to be threatening livestock or humans.
Gevock and other critics said the word “threat” in the bill is too vague. “Is it threatening your livestock if it’s half a mile away?” Ultimately, Gevock said, the bill is misleading to Montanans. “I think gives a false impression to people that they can kill a bear when they are still protected under federal law.”
But Gillespie, who said he wants to protect his constituents and livestock, said the bill is necessary because of the threat the growing number of grizzlies pose to livestock and humans in his rural district.
He conceded that his bill is effectively moot because as long as grizzlies have ESA protections, it is illegal to kill them under federal law. But the Ethridge lawmaker acknowledged the conflict with the law and said, “maybe it would get you a little bit of slack with the jury.” He added, “this is also kind of a bill that hopefully will buy us some leverage.” If they are not going to be delisted, the populations will keep growing, and people should have more ability to defend themselves and their cattle, he said.
Jay Bodner, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, agreed with Gillespie that grizzlies are a growing threat to cattle, but said federal protections present challenges to protecting them.
“We’ve seen an increase in depredations pretty significantly, of livestock from grizzly bears,” he said. But, he added, “we really couldn’t necessarily enact [SB98 until] bears are delisted from the ESA.”
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