A new Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks initiative aims to engage kids in the public comment process through video cameras, computers, and grizzly bears.
Students at Corvallis High School in the Bitterroot Valley filter into a classroom. As they settle in, they’re transfixed on the huge, glowing projector screen pulled down over the whiteboard.
They’re seven of nearly 500 students, mostly in Montana, who tuned in via WiFi to watch a panel discussion exploring all sides of the contentious future of grizzly bears in Montana last Thursday.
Biology teacher Jeff Kaiser is no stranger to teaching issues related to wildlife and the environment.
"The class just got done doing a big unit on grizzly bears and if they should be taken off the endangered species list, so I thought this just tied in perfectly with that. It’s been working awesome," Kaiser says.
It’s part of the FWP Grizzly Bear IC Challenge, a new program developed in partnership with Missoula-based Inspired Classroom that encourages high schoolers across the state to get involved in wildlife management.
Last year was a tumultuous time for grizzlies. Federal protection under the Endangered Species Act for the more than 700 bears that live in and around Yellowstone National Park were restored just days before the first grizzly hunt in decades was scheduled to begin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed a notice to appeal that decision in December, but it also threw off their timeline on delisting the even larger population of grizzlies up north in and around Glacier National Park.
Officials say both populations are expanding, and causing an increasing number of conflicts with humans.
That’s where FWP’s grizzly bear challenge, and this classroom in Corvallis come in.
After a few technical tweaks, things begin.
Students have a chance to interact with nine different people, ranging from FWP and Forest Service biologists to a rancher and representatives of wildlife-focused nonprofits, like Gary Bertellotti, FWP’s regional supervisor out of Great Falls.
"It will never be what it was in the 1700, 1800s. But the core populations that we’re dealing with will be secure, habitats will be secure as we move towards delisting," Bertellotti says.
Laurie Wolf, education program manager at FWP, says the event developed from the success of a similar program oriented around sage grouse that began last year. She says it’s designed to teach students critical thinking, and to engage with the complicated web of both science and social issues that surround grizzly recovery. And beyond all that, "What it teaches them is how to be a part of the public comment process," Wolf says.
The panel’s meant to mimic a real-life public meeting, where agencies and managers take formal public comment. Meetings like those are frequently required by the national or Montana Environmental Policy Acts, which became law in the 1970s. They’re designed to allow citizens to weigh in on initiatives related to wildlife, ecosystems and natural resources.
While some critics of the NEPA process say it can bog down time-sensitive environmental action with lawsuits and delays, Wolf says she wants Montana’s youth to understand that they have a stake in managing the state’s public resources.
"It’s important for us to consider all of the public’s viewpoints," Wolf says. "And sometimes that’s challenging – and that’s one of the things that I love about this grizzly bear distance learning program is that high schoolers are learning how challenging that can be. The questions that these students are proposing are phenomenal."
Those questions relate to management of bears, a possible grizzly hunt, bear behavior, and much more. Back at the classroom in Corvallis, biology teacher Jeff Kaiser is addressing the students.
"I think you guys are in a unique position here because grizzly bears are just moving in," Kaiser says.
No resident grizzly bears are known to live in the Bitterroot, but last October, a grizzly was captured and relocated on a golf course in Stevensville, not too far north of here.
The Bitterroot area is one of six ecosystems across the lower 48 designated as grizzly habitat. And it’s a key connectivity area between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, around Glacier National park.
The school grizzly bear challenge will culminate in a community action plan students submit to FWP.
"We can be ahead of this game, and we can really help this community out with this project," Kaiser says.
The students discuss possible ways of engaging locals: classes, a newspaper article, recruiting other community members.
Grizzlies are opportunists – they love fruit from trees, grain, corn, pet food, livestock – whatever they can get their paws on. It makes rural life in areas dense with grizzlies increasingly difficult. So class member Anya Gauthier says property owners need to be aware that grizzlies will come back to the same place repeatedly if they find tasty food.
"Say you go to restaurants with your family, like, you always remember the place, like, oh they have good chicken pasta, oh they have horrible chicken pasta. Like, I’m always gonna go to the place with the great chicken pasta. You’re gonna go back to that good restaurant," Gauthier says.
The students go around the classroom, reflecting on what they learned from the stakeholders that day.
"I just didn’t realize how important it was for the people whose land is housing bears to get support, and I also think that I’ve learned a lot about how much the habitat of the bears matters, and how much humans can impact that," student David Albrecht says.
"There’s a lot of miscommunication. Like, people don’t understand how much it affects farmers. But also the farmers don’t really give ways that the people could help even if they wanted to." student Sammantha Shegrud says.
The class goes back to the difficult process of finding ways to help people and grizzlies get along. It’s tough, but all the students say they think it’s possible.
FWP’s Laurie Wolf says she hopes to continue the program in the future, with even more emphasis on public comment. She also says, pending funding, FWP is considering piloting a similar distance learning initiative on swift fox in eastern Montana.