Grizzly bear council has plenty of work ahead

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Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Martha Williams, left, assists Bear Management Specialist Tim Manley, center, and Region 1 Wildlife Manager Neil Anderson, right, with the immobilization and processing of the subadult grizzly bear that was moved from the McGregor Lake area. (Photo by Dillon Tabish, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks)

The Grizzly Bear Advisory Council met in Polson last week to continue discussion about how the state can best manage a number of challenges associated with Montana’s growing grizzly bear population.

The council, comprised of 18 members whittled down from more than 150 applicants, was appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock in July 2019. Members come from just about every corner of the state and bring a wide range of knowledge and experience to the table, including backgrounds in conservation, livestock production, agriculture and wildlife education.

The council’s overall purpose is to offer Bullock recommendations at the end of August on how grizzlies and people can successfully coexist in the long run as both groups continue to grow and expand across Montana’s landscape. Although these are just recommendations, they may be used by Montana and neighboring states to inform policies surrounding grizzly bears and conservation in the future.

“This isn’t necessarily just Montana. There are other states that may look to what this council puts together as a way to guide their own important discussions,” said Heather Stokes, a neutral co-facilitator from the University of Montana. “People are paying attention to what you are doing here.”

As bear counts increase — primarily as a result of extensive recovery efforts — some are moving into areas of the state they haven’t occupied in decades, prompting unease from many officials and residents. This expansion is coupled with an increasing number of Montana residents and tourists living, working and recreating in grizzly habitat.

“The bears are already doing what bears do, they’re wandering, they’re expanding. We are facing more bears and more people and therein lies the challenge,” said council member Caroline Byrd of Bozeman. “But we have to remember that we are making recommendations, we are not setting policy.”

The two-day meeting was the council’s fourth gathering since its inception. The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for the end of February in Libby.

At each meeting, the council covers a different topic related to the long-term management of grizzly bears that will eventually be worked into their recommendations. For the first day, the council discussed grizzly bear management terminology and emerging ideas that may eventually evolve into recommendations.

But those two tasks alone, which sound simple in nature, have proven to be complicated.

When the opinions, backgrounds and experiences of 18 council members merge with the singular mission to form cohesive recommendations, the process can be daunting.

More than 70 ideas were jotted down as possibilities for future recommendations. At this stage in the process, the ideas are being treated more as brainstorming material than concrete, set-in-stone recommendations for Bullock.

“This is not polished and not all of the ideas have even been discussed with other members so they don’t represent the collective voice of the council. But it’s a good way to look at the range of ideas out there from the council and needs to be read in that context,” said Shawn Johnson, a co-facilitator for the council from the University of Montana.

Nonetheless, the emerging ideas focused on connectivity between ecosystems, transplant protocols, the role of hunting and conflict prevention. Among the ideas are a mandatory, state-wide K-12 curriculum on bears to enhance human safety and prevent conflicts; a mandatory online test on bear identification and safety every two years prior to receiving a hunting license; statewide coordination around bear-resistant trash requirements; ensuring people can’t be held liable if grizzly mauling occurs on their property; and streamlining the method by which residents can report grizzly interactions and conflicts to authority figures.

Terminology surrounding bear maintenance was brought into focus. Definitions can vary between state and federal agencies, conservation groups and in conservation strategies for various ecosystems such as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. The terms discussed included total recovery, management, social tolerance, connectivity and conflict, and the council split into discussion groups.

For “conflict,” for example, a group settled on the following definition: the interaction between grizzlies and humans in which bears do or attempt to damage property, kill or injure livestock, damage beehives, injure people or obtain human foods, attractants, or crops.

But several council members saw flaws in the answer.

“By your definition of conflict, it seems that a conflict can only be instigated by a bear,” council member Jonathan Bowler pointed out. Another member added, “It goes two ways. Humans can be the problem, too.”

But council member Trina Jo Bradley from Valier maintained the definition was valid.

“We aren’t making recommendations on how to manage people, we are making recommendations on how to manage grizzly bears. Our conflict definition applies to grizzlies because that’s what we are talking about,” she said.

Even terms that appeared more simple in nature, such as “total recovery,” received sweeping thoughts and answers as to how it should be defined.

Each talking point and subsequent open dialogue among council members made it clear most members have differing views on everything from terminology, to ideas for recommendations.

A few dozen members of the public also attended the meeting, and a key concern was how the council plans to gather public input. Attendees mentioned feeling left behind in the discussions as council members went back-and-forth about emerging ideas laid out in a sizable packet — of which there were not enough to go around in the audience.

Others in the audience said they were unsure whether the council had firmly established a vision for what they want to present to Bullock. Others pointed out the importance of letting science guide the council’s decisions.

“This is all about grizzly recovery in the Lower 48 and the deep responsibility to that. These terms needs to be informed by science,” one woman said.

The council’s February meeting in Libby will focus on how grizzly bears fit in among a developing recreation and tourism scene in Montana and what resources are available and needed to address emerging human-bear challenges.

For information on the council, meeting minutes, members details or to engage and comment on the council, go to http://fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/management/grizzlyBear/gbac.html

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com.

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