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Seeking Solutions for Grizzlies in the Gravelly Mountains

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Image from rawpixel.com / Madhu Shesharam

Western Landowners Alliance shares experiences from a working, wild landscape that sustains both people and wildlife.

Livestock producers in the Northern Rockies face the growing challenge of increasing numbers of grizzly bears. That challenge has come to a critical point in the Gravelly Mountains in southwest Montana, where the population of grizzlies has expanded in recent years onto public lands grazing allotments on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The number of livestock lost to grizzly predation on these rangelands consequently increased dramatically over the last several years. Hunters in the Gravelly Mountains also experienced a record number of encounters with grizzly bears this fall resulting in 4 human injuries in 3 separate incidents.

Many livestock operations in the West represent a form of agriculture deeply compatible and even synergistic with wildlife and wide-open beauty.

Cole Mannix, associate director, WLA

Western Landowners Alliance (WLA) and two local watershed-based collaboratives, the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance and Madison Valley Ranchlands Group, gathered ranchers, agency personnel, and conservation-based NGOs for a meeting that marks the beginning of a regional landowner-led effort to improve compatibility between healthy grizzly populations and healthy ranching communities. The event, “Sustaining Working Lands Amidst Large Carnivores,” took place at the fire hall in Alder, November 15 and was attended by over 100 people.

“Many livestock operations in the West represent a form of agriculture deeply compatible and even synergistic with wildlife and wide-open beauty,” said Cole Mannix, Associate Director of WLA, “Of course, managing for this balance is a big, ongoing challenge, and this is why we are meeting.” 

WLA’s Cole Mannix, standing center, takes reports from participants after a breakout session. Photo by Louise Johns.

Sharing common experiences

The meeting featured Albert Sommers, a rancher and state legislator from Pinedale, Wyoming. According to Sommers, “The Upper Green River Cattle Association has seen its calf loss rates go from 2% in the early 1990s to 10-15% in recent years. Grizzly and wolf predation is the greatest challenge we face as producers, with the exception of market swings.” By bringing together livestock producers separated by geo-political boundaries to share common experiences with key stakeholders, WLA plans to increase flexibility for innovation and adaptive management to reduce conflicts.

Local ranchers repeatedly expressed the need for increased capacity and personnel on the ground to help with prevention as well as to verify and respond to conflicts, adequate compensation for livestock losses, and better communication between livestock producers and agency staff.

Compensation is the key to keeping ranchers on the landscape, even when wildlife managers and policy makers change bear management and philosophies.

Albert Sommers, rancher and Wyoming state legislator

According to Albert Sommers, “compensation is the key to keeping ranchers on the landscape, even when wildlife managers and policy makers change bear management and philosophies. Our Association [the Upper Green River Cattle Association] is proof that you can economically survive an expanding grizzly bear population when you have adequate compensation. Our example is also proof that grizzly bears can expand when chronic depredators are removed from the population.” Wyoming compensates up to 3.5 times the market value for every confirmed livestock depredation by grizzly bears, whereas Montana compensates 1 to 1 ratio.

The Upper Green River Cattle Association’s Albert Sommers speaks about partnering with agency staff and NGOs to reduce conflicts with grizzly bears.

Generating momentum for change

The Alder event created momentum toward meaningful change with several groups now discussing changes to Montana’s compensation program including the Governors Grizzly Bear Advisory Council on which WLA’s Cole Mannix sits. WLA plans to engage alongside strategic partners to create a proposal for a multiplier in Montana as well as to explore options for expanding agency capacity while building agency-landowner relationships. This public meeting is the first of 7 that WLA will host as part of its Working Wild Challenge initiative to find practical, landowner-led solutions to wildlife-related issues on working lands in the Northern Rockies and shine light on the positive role working lands play in the western landscape.

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