For Predators, Montana's New Wildlife Laws Bring Cloudy Future
More than a half dozen wildlife bills have been signed into law, all with a similar vision for Montana: they suggest that there are too many predators on the landscape — and that numbers of animals like wolves and grizzly bears need to be reduced. Now, questions are proliferating over the future of predators in Montana. How that future looks lies at the intersection of law, values, and living with those species on the ground.
I’m in the Tom Miner Basin, just north of Yellowstone National Park, finding out what it means to live with grizzlies. Rancher and community organizer Malou Anderson-Ramirez and I duck under an electric fence and start trudging up a hill.
“They almost sort of take the top soil and sort of roll it and then pick out the roots, so they really make a big mess of the soil,” Anderson-Ramirez says.
She’s showing me where grizzly bears load up on calories every late summer and fall by digging up and gobbling down a plant called carraway growing on her family’s land. We’re looking at the aftermath from last season.
This is private, agricultural land. But at certain times of the year, it’s not uncommon for more than 10 bears to be grazing at once, munching away at the root amidst cattle.
“There’s another,” Anderson-Ramirez says.
The way Montana responds to this proximity between bears, wolves and people is about to change in a big way.
Bills targeting predator species in Montana, especially wolves and grizzlies, were signed into law this year. They allow wolf hunting at night; remove bag limits; pay hunters for killing wolves; extend wolf hunting season; and allow neck snares and trap baiting. When it comes to bears, they allow landowners to kill grizzlies for threatening to harm their livestock. The new laws also prohibit the state from relocating problem bears outside of recovery areas.
Proponents say the bills are a necessary check on predator populations, and will make life easier for farmers and ranchers like Anderson-Ramirez.
“I certainly believe in management. I’m not a butterflies and rainbows type of person. I see firsthand the challenges that arise when we are raising prey in places like next to Yellowstone,” Anderson-Ramirez says.
But she says the slew of predator legislation signals an abrupt change of values for living with predators in the state.
“It’s been a tough session. I would say we are absolutely stepping back in time 200 years. And we’re better than that. Montana’s better than that."
Today, her family works hard to minimize conflicts with predators. But it’s been a long journey.
Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the mid-90s, and they started showing up on Anderson-Ramirez’s property not long after. Later, grizzlies started showing up, too.
Preventing conflict is constant learning and experimentation, she says. Her family has used flashing lights, carcass removal programs, range riding, bear scent boundaries, guardian dogs, electric fencing, noise-makers, and more, to help her livestock and predators get along.
“We just gotta keep on going with what feels right in our own value system."
Farmers and ranchers across western Montana face this question of how to live with and manage predators. More than three hundred miles northwest of the Tom Miner, Trina Jo Bradley runs cattle on the southern end of the Blackfeet Reservation on the Rocky Mountain Front.
“I was really excited about all the bills that went through this year,” Bradley says.
I talked with her on the phone and she said I caught her at a good time. She was getting ready to put her cows out to pasture.
“We've spent the last seven months feeding them and now it's time for them to go out and feed themselves.”
She said grizzlies govern her life.
“I carry a gun everywhere I go. My husband has a gun in the tractor. We have a gun by the back door. I mean, it's just whatever we do, we have to make sure that we are safe from bears before we do it.”
The bears don’t just stress Bradley and her family; they stress her cattle, too. She said stress can cause weight loss and decreased birth rates in her herd. She said the laws passed this year will help keep problem bears off peoples’ property.
Under federal law, it’s illegal to kill a grizzly unless it’s threatening your life, but the state now recognizes the right to kill one for threatening livestock. Bradley says she recognizes that's against federal law until delisting happens — but it’s a symbolic step.
“It sends a message that says, guess what, we are ready for this. We are ready for the state to manage our grizzly bear. We are ready to be able to protect what is ours, which is a constitutional right.” Bradley says.
Montana is home to more grizzlies than anywhere else in the lower 48 states. There are more than a thousand bears in and around both the Glacier and Yellowstone National Park areas, along with other, much smaller populations elsewhere in northwest Montana. They’ve been protected as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act since 1975. Those protections were twice removed by the federal government for Yellowstone-area bears. But they were returned in court.
Bradley said she doesn’t think grizzlies will be delisted in her lifetime.
“I think these grizzly bear bills that went through this year are a step in the right direction, if for no other reason than to say [to the federal government], hey, we’re not going to put up with your crap anymore.”
As people who share their land with predator species grapple with the new legislation, the legal futures of wolves and grizzly bears are up in the air. Chris Servheen is vice president of issues at the Montana Wildlife Federation. Before this job he spent three and half decades as the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“For many years I was a strong advocate to get grizzly bears recovered and then delist them, because that's the objective of the Act,” Servheen says.
In order to remove federal protections, there have to be measures in place to show a species will never again face extinction. Servheen said for decades, Montana set a precedent as a good partner in managing grizzlies and maintaining a sustainable population. But then, he said, came this year’s legislative session.
“What they are going to do is resulting in the inability for the Fish and Wildlife Service to ever delist the grizzly bear in Montana.”
He said in addition to the grizzly-specific legislation, bills targeting wolves and black bears will also lead to more dead grizzlies.
Federal protections for wolves in Montana were removed in 2011. And Servheen said with the Legislature’s focus on killing more wolves, “The end result may be that wolves are going to be listed under the Endangered Species Act again.”
The state estimates there are about 1,100 wolves in Montana. The laws passed this year seek to reduce that number to a quote “sustainable population,” but don’t define what that means. The bills say the population can’t go below 15 breeding pairs.
Last week, environmental groups submitted an emergency petition to restore those federal protections for gray wolves, due to laws passed in both Montana and Idaho. The government has 90 days to respond.
“This is a total reversal of 40 years of conservation effort by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks,” Servheen says.
Rob Arnaud, an outfitter, a lifelong hunter, and a private land wildlife manager, said the idea that the new legislation will decimate predator populations in Montana is archaic thinking.
“I'm certainly pro-predator. I love all the wildlife. I mean, we’re all God’s creatures. I think they all have a place on this on on this earth. But our job as man is just to manage them. People say, well, you're, you just want to kill all those wolves. Well, no, I don't. I just want to manage them.”
I met Arnaud in his outfitting business’s trophy room in Bozeman. A menagerie of taxidermied animals lined the walls; an enormous bison head was perched between us. Arnaud said he and his business partner had hunted — and eaten — everything here.
“We both enjoy to hunt and we're both avid conservationists because of that, as all hunters are.”
He said the idea that hunters are conservationists often gets overlooked. Hunters played a major role in bringing back game species like deer and elk from the brink of extinction in the early 1900s. Today, hunting and fishing licenses pay the bulk of FWP’s budget, and another sizable chunk of that cash is paid through federal taxes on guns and ammo. Arnaud said at the heart of the issue is finding a balance between predator and prey.
“In order for something to live, something needs to die. That is just the order out there.”
Montana FWP data show that the state as a whole is over population objectives for elk. Arnaud said zooming in, that abundance is concentrated in areas without wolves. About half of the hunting districts in ‘region one’ — which covers the northwest corner of the state — show populations below those objectives. In hearings, proponents of the wolf hunting bills cited declining elk harvest numbers in Northwest Montana as a sign that there are too many wolves.
“The hunters paid for these animals to be on the landscape. They're the ones managing for it.” Arnaud says.
Earlier this year, Montana’s complicated relationship with predators hit national headlines when Gov. Greg Gianforte was cited for trapping and killing a wolf without a required education course. At a press conference, he said hunting plays a crucial role in wildlife management in the state.
“It was a tremendous honor to be able to harvest a wolf here in Montana.”
Scott Creel is a professor of ecology at Montana State University. He’s been focusing on large carnivores for decades, and he studied the relationship between wolves and elk after the predators were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s.
“The hunter from certain regions in northwest Montana who's having to work harder to find an elk, he's not wrong. Telling him he's wrong isn't going to help,” Creel says.
To Creel, the debate over predator management is about something much trickier to pin down than, say, hunter success or elk population numbers.
“This isn't biology. This is values.”
Creel said the data inform his own values.
“It's a bad time to be a large carnivore,” he says.“This year's Legislature took the biggest step back towards the kind of laws that allowed them to be eliminated in the first place that I've seen in my lifetime as a working ecologist.”
Creel said wildlife professionals should make policy, not politicians. Dozens of wildlife biologists, including former members of Montana FWP, wrote a letter to Gianforte and the Legislature in March condemning bills they say are “based on misinformation about wildlife, misinformation about effects of predators on prey species, and a lack of understanding about the complexity of natural environments in Montana.”
Creel said today, there are about as many elk on the landscape statewide as at any point in the last two centuries. And he said wolves aren’t the only factor changing hunting success: fire suppression, climate change, land access and other factors matter, too. And so do other predators. One recent Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks study said mountain lions were driving the declining elk population in the Bitterroots, not wolves.
“I do think that the data are pretty good to suggest that wolves do affect elk numbers. You know, it's a bad thing if you want the really abundant elk that we had in this 70 year period where we'd largely eliminated all of their predators. But maybe we just have to learn to live with a more natural world and the way elk hunting will be in that world.”
Creel said coexistence is the norm, not the exception. Ranchers and farmers will continue adapting to life alongside predators as wildlife officials monitor grizzlies and wolves.
Looking ahead, a spokesperson for Montana FWP said the state is still grappling with what number of wolves makes for a sustainable population.
What the new wolf hunting laws mean for hunters on the ground is still being decided; the Fish and Wildlife Commission will hear FWP’s proposal for next season later this month.