Grizzly bears are repopulating areas of Montana that haven’t seen them for decades, creating more conflict between livestock, people and bears. Some ranchers are learning they need to do something that doesn’t come naturally — change how they live on the land.
As bears were hibernating in their dens this winter, the Blackfeet Stockgrowers Association held a meeting in Choteau to provide a space for ranchers like Mark Hitchcock to talk about working alongside the growing number of grizzly bears on the Rocky Mountain Front.
"If the animals aren’t there, my cattle aren’t getting killed. If we can deal with the problem, we don’t have to be refunded." Hitchcock says.
The number of sheep, cattle and other livestock killed by grizzlies in Montana is going up. And even though the state pays for some of those losses, ranchers say they face unseen costs such as stressed cattle with lower pregnancy rates and end-of-season weights. Because of that, ranchers like Hitchcock can get fixated on how to reduce the number of bears.
His daughter hopes to slightly change that view.
Driving on her ranch near Valier in early February, Trina Bradley says she’s seen bears on the front since she was a kid, but there are more of them now.
“But most of the time, we just see where they’ve been. Those are the bears we like to have out here. The other ones are just in my yard, in my face,” Bradley says.
Bradley steps out to open a gate to her calving pasture, where the soon-to-be-born calves will be at risk as bears come out of their dens in March and April. You wouldn’t call Bradley a fan of grizzly bears, but she does hold a slightly different opinion than her dad and others on the front when it comes to what will happen when the threatened species is delisted from federal protections.
“I think another part of the challenge is convincing these people that even if they’re delisted, they’re not going to go away. They’re not going to disappear from the landscape,” Bradley says.
Bradley says ranchers need to learn to live with that. She’s trying to have more of that education come from a group of people ranchers may be more willing to listen to — other ranchers.
Mike Madel is a grizzly biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and he says bears can now be seen past Interstate 15, which is 40 miles from the mountains. And he says they’re not just traveling there in the spring, summer and fall.
"Most bears do return to the Rocky Mountain Front and excavate a den up high. There are some female grizzly bears that are starting to hibernate, dig dens and hibernate out in those wild, remote high-plains and riverbottom habitats," Madel says.
Madel says there’s a larger diversity of food sources on the plains and because of that, this new generation of cubs will likely be more reproductive, accelerating the population’s growth. Madel has worked to write grants to fund conflict mitigation tools for ranchers and farmers closer to the mountains for years, but he says the need is growing in outlying ranching and farm communities.
“And it's really becoming part of an issue for us. And I didn't have to deal with a lot like providing farmers with bear proof grain grain bin doors,” Madel says.
That’s why FWP recently hired a grizzly bear conflict specialist to help Madel with the workload. He adds that rancher-led efforts like Trina Bradley’s will help get people reluctant to work with government agencies on board.
Bradley agrees and says ranchers need to feel supported with education but also with the cost of reducing bear conflicts.
“Funding is always a huge barrier. Electric fencing cost money, dogs cost money, everything costs a lot of money, not just for the initial set-up, but for the maintenance,” Bradley says.
Bradley and the Blackfeet Stockgrowers Association have been holding meetings across the Rocky Mountain Front trying to convince ranchers focused on delisting to turn their attention to finding ways to reduce run-ins with bears. But tools to do that are expensive. A trained guard dog could run $5,000 or more and an electric fence around a calving lot can easily cost over $10,000 depending on the size. That price tag can be a huge turnoff to ranchers already having a hard time staying in the black.
Bradley hopes the meetings will catapult efforts within the stockgrowers association to compete for grant dollars from state and federal agencies and nonprofits. She’s also asking ranchers to get out there and tell their stories in order to let the public know what they’re dealing with.
“Ranchers are very private people and we don’t want to talk about what’s going on out here because it’s nobody’s business. But it’s to the point where we need to talk about it and to tell our story,” Bradley says.
The private land trust troup Heart of the Rockies Initiative works to fund several local ranching and farm groups working on living with bears. Garry Burnett is the group’s executive director.
“So let’s move into how to maintain grizzly bear populations, and how to maintain these livestock operations. I’ve heard landowners says this: we can do both,” Burnett says.
He says there are success stories of ranchers and bears coexisting, it’s been happening in the Blackfoot Valley for years.
On the Two Creek Ranch east of Ovando, members of local conservation groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working together to unwind and set up about a mile of flaggery. It’s an electrified wire with red flags attached to it meant to scare wolves away, which ranch manager Wayne Slaght says is one of his main issues these days.
But he hasn’t had a grizzly kill one of his cows for about 20 years.
“When you get your first depredation, emotions are very high, you’re upset with the world and want to go kill all the bears and that can’t happen. You gotta get over that and move onto the fact of what you can get done," Slaght says.
After the first time a bear killed one of his livestock, Slaght received funding from various nonprofits and government agencies for a roughly $17,000 six-wire electric fence around his calving lot. He’s funded more electric fencing himself and installed shipping containers to lock up grain and minerals.
“The bears did tear all the wooden doors off of all of our storage bins,” Slaght says.
Slaght was an early adopter of some of these tools and over time, his neighbors took notice. He says local conservation group Blackfoot Challenge has been key in getting ranchers to the table.
Executive Director Seth Wilson says a majority of ranchers here are using the nonprofit’s help to pay for things like electric fences, and conflicts have gone down.
“We documented a 75 percent reduction from 2003 to 2012. Last year we had a bump-up of conflicts and bears continue to show us where we need to do more work and we’ll continue to face that sort of challenge and we’ll do that,” Wilson says.
While the landscape and the specific mitigation tools needed on the Rocky Mountain Front may be different, Trina Bradley says that’s the kind of success she’s shooting for.
“We can work together similarly on the front, maybe not set up something like the Blackfoot challenge, but work together similarly to figure this out together,” Bradley says.
Bradley says buy-in will take time, but she’s hoping like the Blackfoot Valley neighbors of early adopters will take notice and word-of-mouth will do the rest of the work.