Updated: 10/07/19 at 5:15 p.m.
A new council dedicated to building consensus around state grizzly management and paving the way to delisting wrapped up its first round of meetings last week.
At the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council, the future of bear management starts with neon sticky notes and poster boards. Council members are milling around a dimly lit room outside Helena, sticking their thoughts under big, controversial topics in grizzly management, like “bear distribution,” “connectivity,” and “conflicts with humans.”
Gov. Steve Bullock signed an executive order in July that established the council. More than 150 people applied applied for a spot, and 18 were selected. Nearly half of the council members are ranchers who live with grizzlies, and the remainder are wildlife advocates, teachers, outdoor and timber industry representatives, and other community leaders.
Over the next year, they’ll establish recommendations that will guide bear management across the state. Martha Williams, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, says the meetings are about getting diverse parties to listen to each other on such a highly polarizing issue.
"It will also better set us up for delisting."
In order to remove federal protections, the state and federal governments need to show measures are in place that will keep bear populations from plummeting again. These meetings are a step in that direction.
"Once bears are fully recovered — I think they’re recovered — can we demonstrate we have an ability to manage for them? Then I think it’s harder to say no, they’re not ready to delist."
Grizzlies in the Lower 48 were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. State bear managers say populations have since rebounded — about 1000 bears now live in and around Glacier National Park, an area known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. More than 700 dwell around Yellowstone.
The Department of the Interior removed Yellowstone-area grizzlies from the Endangered Species List in the summer of 2017. But a federal judge in Missoula returned protections to the bears last fall. The legal turmoil that ensued also threw off plans to delist Glacier-area bears by the end of last year.
"The Endangered Species Act really is a statement of a society’s values, says Nick Gevock, council member and conservation director at the Montana Wildlife Federation.
"We said we will not let species blink out. And now, it worked," he says.
Last year a record 51 grizzlies died or were relocated from the NCDE. This year that number is already 37. Most of those bears were killed by bear managers in response to conflicts with property or livestock. Fall marks the time of most grizzly conflicts, as they venture near homes and property to bulk up for winter hibernation. At least five bruins have also died in the Montana portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Bozeman-based Sarah Pawloski, a community organizer with the Sierra Club, offered public comment.
"We need a healthy, connected grizzly population, and we need strategies that address the significant and combined threats of climate change and habitat fragmentation."
Montana bears a special burden when it comes to grizzly recovery. The state houses the most grizzlies in the lower 48, and it contains just about all the territory bears will have to move across as the Yellowstone and Glacier populations eventually connect — which bear biologists hope will soon occur.
The tract of land where bears have recovered is nearly 90 percent public. But state biologists say that map changes as they expand; about half the land they’ll have to cross to link ecosystems is in private hands.
State Sen. Bruce Gillespie voiced economic concern for his constituents living with bears along the Rocky Mountain Front.
"In general I think we’re asking a small portion of our population to bury a very unreasonable cost."
Council members from both ranching and advocacy backgrounds said the meetings were a chance to genuinely be heard, and to listen and relate to perspectives they wouldn’t otherwise confront.
"I think this meeting has far exceeded any expectation that I had," says council member Kristen Kipp, a rancher and Blackfeet member.
The Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council will hold about eight meetings over the next year. The next round is November 14 and 15 at the FWP Regional Headquarters in Bozeman.