A citizen committee appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock finalized a report on how the state should manage grizzly bears last week. They envisioned a future with fully recovered populations of grizzlies in Montana, but could not agree on what that future looks like, in particular when it comes to hunting.
Grizzlies are divisive. They’re big predators that can destroy property, kill livestock, and maul people. But they’re also an iconic species important to tribal cultures, conservationists and the recreation economy in Montana.
Last year, the state appointed a council of 18 ranchers, hunters, educators, conservationists, and industry representatives to bridge that divide, and find consensus on how bears and people can get along as both populations grow in the state. The meetings were sometimes tense and passionate.
In the final document, the council agreed on a wide range of initiatives for the state and other relevant agencies, including the federal government and local communities. Among many recommendations, it called for increasing funding to compensate ranchers for livestock lost to grizzlies, boosting education and outreach efforts and an array of initiatives to help the bruins connect between populations in the state.
Martha Williams is director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
"The conversations they had, while at times messy and challenging, I think represent the reality of what it means to have grizzly bears in Montana," Williams says.
Montana is home to more grizzly bears than anywhere else in the lower 48 states, and they’ve been listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act since 1975. Over the last year, the council received more than 16,000 public comments — mostly related to the one issue over which the council could not find consensus: Hunting.
Heather Stokes, senior facilitator at the University of Montana’s Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy, helped guide the council’s conversations throughout the process. She said this topic was particularly controversial because.
"There are deep-rooted values within the role of hunting," Stokes says.
Those conflicting values meant the council hit an impasse. Without agreement, the group outlined considerations both for and against a big game season for grizzlies. Both sides agreed it likely wouldn't reduce conflicts between bears and people. The report also gives guidelines for state wildlife managers if they do set up that season.
Critics say the process was flawed from the start, and ignored the actual feelings of Montanans towards a grizzly hunt.
"The council was conceived of and put together primarily to advance a partisan agenda to provide additional cover for promoting the agenda of delisting and hunting grizzly bears," says David Mattson, a retired wildlife biologist.
Mattson says he occasionally calls himself a "professional troublemaker [laughter]" on the grizzly bear front.
Mattson said there is lots of laudable language in the recommendations.
"The state of Montana is actually doing a lot that’s right," he says.
But in an open letter to Gov. Bullock and several other officials involved with the council, he alleged the science presented throughout the meetings ignored important work in the field, and that the council member selection process was opaque.
"It was in fact weighted towards the interests of livestock producers, people in the extractive industries, hunters," Mattsons says.
FWP Director Martha Williams stands by the process.
"I would resist the charges that it’s been politically influenced, or that the agency influenced it. I just think that couldn’t be farther from the truth."
In order for a hunt to take place, the bears would have to be removed from the endangered species list. But the federal government's attempt to do so for Yellowstone-area bears has twice been thwarted by federal courts.
But Williams says this document is meant to guide the future of grizzlies in the state, whether they’re listed or not.
"The irony is that I feel like we’re getting kind of hammered from groups who really want bears to remain listed. And that’s fine, but I feel like it misses the point of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Montana anteing up and saying 'Okay, we need to get this regardless of whether they’re listed. And we’re all in, we’re gonna work to figure this out.'"
She said the recommendations will form the foundation of a state grizzly bear management plan. Although she said there’s no timeline on that document yet, it will include a rigorous public input process. She emphasized that the council’s report goes beyond politics, to the work of helping people and bears coexist on the ground.
"Grizzly bears are recovered, but that doesn’t mean our work stops."