My role on Montana’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council

A grizzly photographed on the Mannix Ranch outside Helmville, Montana, Autumn 2019. Photo courtesy of Mannix Ranch.

The 18 Montana citizens on the Grizzly Bear Conservation and Management Advisory Council (GBAC) have a big job to do between now and the council’s August 2020 deadline. With four of the eight scheduled council meetings having now taken place, this a good time to share my impressions of the work so far and the important tasks that lie before us. 

Expanding range makes grizzlies a pressing concern

Grizzly bears are valued by cultures and people across Montana and around the world. Yet they are also feared for their effects on people’s livelihoods and safety. The grizzly population, once perilously low, continues to recover across the Northern Rockies. Their range is expanding into areas they have not been in decades, creating challenges which existing management plans are not fully prepared to address. It was with all this pressing on state wildlife managers, private lands stewards and the public that Montana Governor Steve Bullock established the grizzly bear advisory council through an executive order in July 2019.

As a member of the council, I have been impressed by the level of respect demonstrated by my peers for each other and for the work. We are digesting lots of information from agency scientists, bear managers and administrators, tribal leaders, all while trying to understand the values and different personal experiences each of us brings. Council members are also working through public comments and feedback made on the FWP website and during council meetings and in fielding personal phone calls and correspondence. 

The governor requested recommendations within at least seven categories: grizzly distribution, connectivity, conflict prevention, response protocols for conflict, transplant protocols, the role of hunting, and resources for long term sustainability of grizzly bear conservation. The council is to focus its recommendations on promoting human safety, a healthy and sustainable grizzly bear population, timely and effective response to conflict, engagement of all partners in education and outreach, and improved intergovernmental, interagency and tribal coordination. Adding to the complexity for the state is the fact that grizzlies remain listed under the Endangered Species Act, meaning that ultimate management authority still lies with the federal government. Four of the six US Fish and Wildlife Service recovery zones for the grizzly lie in Montana, literally and figuratively placing our state squarely at the center of grizzly bear management in the lower 48. 

A grizzly happily meandering on the Mannix Ranch. Photo courtesy of Mannix Ranch.

Today, grizzly bear populations in both the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) are growing and expanding by all accounts, with near term risks greatly reduced. However, scientists would like to see enhanced landscape connectivity between these zones to allow for genetic exchange and increased genetic diversity (especially for the GYE).

It is also true that grizzlies remain far from recovery in the other four USFWS-designated recovery zones, and enhanced connectivity in Montana may allow bears to gradually repopulate those zones (the Bitterroot-Selway and Cabinet-Yaak) on their own. Long term, grizzlies face the same core challenges and uncertainties that we all do with respect to an ecologically intact landscape: the proliferation of pavement, groundwater wells, housing, and energy development, along with an increasingly volatile climate and attendant ecosystem risks.

Who bears the costs?

As for many of the council members, this issue is both personal and professional for me. I am part of a family that has been fortunate to ranch for almost 140 years in the Blackfoot Valley, situated directly south of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness complexes of the NCDE. The Blackfoot has been host to greatly increased grizzly bear presence over the last 15 years or so.

Professionally, I work for an organization with a mission to “sustain working lands, connected landscapes and native species.” I am proud of the role ranch operations and other working lands have played in maintaining an open, natural landscape that makes it quite compatible with the presence of wildlife like the grizzly bear. This, despite my growing frustration with the fact that managing agricultural lands amidst grizzly presence is yet another responsibility that a few people in agriculture are asked to take on by and for a public that oftentimes is unwilling to acknowledge the costs of those commitments.

Society generally allocates insufficient resources to land stewardship and is simultaneously unwilling to limit the demands it places on the landscape. Americans direct a smaller share of our means to the food system than any other country, yet this is primarily how stewardship of private lands is paid for. Americans value public lands, wildlife and recreation but underfund the responsible agencies while burying them in paperwork. In the big picture, the future of the grizzly bear and of an intact western landscape cannot be assured by law and fiat any more than we can address climate change by outlawing it. Whatever the future holds, it will be lived out in the way we manage the demands we place on the landscape for food, energy, recreation and housing.

Photo courtesy of Mannix Ranch.

I welcome your thoughts as the work of the council continues

Getting back to the work of the council: In my view, as we (at least in western Montana) take on the task of living with increasing grizzly bear presence, Montana and Montanans must take seriously our allocation of resources to education, increased agency boots on the ground, adequate compensation for livestock depredations and funding to support adaptive measures. As grizzlies show up on the landscape in between the GYE and NCDE, agency biologists cannot always revert to taking them back to already overflowing recovery zones. In representing Montana citizens, our council needs to provide the state a vision sufficient to meet the scale of the changes increased grizzly bear presence is bringing.

If you a have thoughts, feedback or questions that you’d like to run by me with regard to grizzly bears or to the work and process of the council, I’d love to hear from you via phone or email. Again, I’ll reiterate that this is a Montana citizen’s council and I do not represent WLA in my participation, yet my work for the organization has certainly informed my perspective. I am cognizant that many people beyond this state are watching the council’s work and are interested in the issues, so please do reach out if you are inclined. 

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