U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt canceled a planned visit to Montana this week. Bernhardt had planned to meet with Montana ranchers and farmers about grizzly bear conflicts along the Rocky Mountain Front as part of his visit.
Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte’s office invited Secretary Bernhardt to the Rocky Mountain Front during his scheduled time in Montana this week to visit with farmers and ranchers struggling with grizzly bear conflicts. But the Interior Department said the secretary canceled due to a scheduling conflict.
Former president of the Montana Wool Growers Association Dave McEwen helped push for the secretary’s visit to western Montana so he could see the issues related to the growing number of livestock killed by bears from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, or NCDE.
"And that's the part that we wanted to instill to the secretary: we're not talking about Glacier [National] Park or [the] Bob Marshall [Wilderness]. We're talking 90 miles from the edge of the recovery area and everything in between. That's the problem."
McEwen says the Wool Growers Association hoped the visit would lead to more funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, which investigates depredation of livestock by wildlife. Those investigations help livestock producers in most cases get reimbursed for livestock depredations through a state board.
McEwen says the agency is struggling to handle the growing grizzly problem amid budget cuts. Livestock producers also fund a substantial portion of Wildlife Service’s budget in Montana through self-imposed fees. More conflicts mean more money out of livestock producers’ pockets.
Wildlife Services says it investigated 16 reports of grizzly bear depredations statewide in 2016. That number hit 138 last year.
Even though the Interior secretary doesn’t oversee Wildlife Services’ parent agency USDA, the Wool Growers Association wants to make a case for more federal funding through a cooperative agreement the agency has with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which the secretary is in charge of.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks also works with Wildlife Services on depredation investigations and handles day-to-day conflicts. Bear Biologist Cecily Costello says grizzlies have nearly doubled their original range in the NCDE, and expanded faster than FWP predictions, leading to an increase in livestock depredations along the eastern edge of the ecosystem.
"The estimated occupied range for the NCDE grizzly bear population is almost 25,000 square miles, which is a 42 percent increase from what we estimated in 2004, and it’s a 25 percent increase from what we estimated in 2010."
McEwen with the Wool Growers Association hopes Interior Secretary Bernhardt will be able to reschedule a visit to the state to see the problem for himself, something the Interior Department said in an emailed statement will happen in the near future.