Bernhardt gets an earful on grizzly problems at Choteau visit

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A grizzly looks over a field in this file photo.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte visited Pondera and Teton counties Oct. 5 to discuss grizzly bear management with a group of local stakeholders.

A variety of entities were represented in the group, including farmers, ranchers, regional employees from the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture, Teton County lawmakers and commissioners and Blackfeet tribal members.

The group started the morning with a sunrise drive to the Rasmuson Wildlife Conservation Center on the Boone and Crockett Club property west of Dupuyer with the hopes of observing grizzly bears in their natural habitat.

“I find it very ironic that we didn’t see any bears in the conservation area, but as soon as we turned around, we saw them along the highway,” Bernhardt said.

The group then moved to the USDA Service Center in Choteau for a roundtable discussion on “problem bears.” Each speaker had a unique perspective on what differentiates a problem bear from a “good grizzly,” but the main concerns were bears that leave natural habitats in favor of human-populated areas, show unnatural behavior such as stalking humans or are responsible for livestock depredations or attacks on humans.

“I am interested in making sure that the department, USDA and the state have a very good understanding of what a problem bear is. … There are clearly problem bears. How we define what a problem bear might be different for different people,” Bernhardt said.

It was clear that the panel of local residents hoped not only for a better definition of problem grizzly bears, but also a delisting of the species from the Endangered Species Act. Grizzly bears have been classified in the ESA as “threatened” since 1975, meaning the federal government regards them as a species “likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.” This designation makes it unlawful to harm, harass or kill these bears except in cases of self-defense.

“The courts have broadened the definition of what it means to have a human threatened. You no longer have to have claw marks on you,” said Teton County Commissioner Jim Hodgskiss, who said he has had a grizzly in his yard next to his grandchildren’s swing set. “When it comes down to my grandkids or a bear, the bear loses.”

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, by 1993, grizzly bear populations across all North America were estimated to be at 800-1,000 — less than 2% of their historic peak population of around 50,000. The plan also said while Idaho’s Bitterroot ecosystem and Washington’s North Cascades ecosystem might take longer to recover, Montana’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem — which stretches from the Canadian border to Lincoln and spans across the continental divide from Kalispell to Choteau — might recover sooner. Many folks argue that time has come.

Grizzly bear populations have steadily increased in the NCDE. The grizzly bear population in the NCDE was estimated to be at least 800 in 2011. Last year, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks set an administrative rule to keep the grizzly population in the NCDE at 800 bears or more, with 90 percent certainty.

“Clearly, the grizzly bear was endangered. The population was reduced. They came under the Endangered Species Act and they have recovered. We should be celebrating that work, taking a victory lap, and transferring management back to the state,” Gianforte said.

As it is now, multiple state and federal agencies must collaborate to manage problem bears.

USDA Wildlife Services performs all the onsite investigations of dead livestock in all of Montana. “With grizzly bears, we work under the authority of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and also under the authority of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. … Grizzly bears are a little bit different, it’s the only species we co-investigate with FWP,” said John Steuber, USDA Wildlife Service director for Montana.

If a rancher reports a livestock loss from a grizzly bear, the USDA must visit the site and perform necropsy tests, which involve completely skinning the carcass, to assure the loss is indeed caused by a grizzly bear before the rancher can collect any payment for damages. If the loss is determined to be a grizzly kill and the problem bear is identified and found, then USFWS and FWP collaborate and decide what they want USDA to do with it.

If FWP and FWS want to capture the bear, USDA is responsible for tracking it down. If the bear is successfully caught, FWP returns to help handle and immobilize the bear. USDA then turns custody of the bear over to FWP. FWP and USFWS together then decide whether to kill or relocate the bear.

As grizzly bear populations have increased, so have dangerous grizzly bear interactions. Steuber said in 2013, USDA Wildlife Services responded to 25 livestock depredation reports for grizzlies. In 2018, they responded to 138 reports. By September of 2019 (which is the end-of-the-year point for the agency) they had responded to 156 calls.

Doreen Gillespie, a member of the Montana Livestock Loss Board, agreed that the management system is too complex. “If we can’t get it delisted right away, at least change the rules so we can protect our personal property and lives without needing a team of lawyers,” she said. “If my board could go away, I’d be thrilled.”

Teton County Commissioner Dick Snellman questioned why government employees are involved in disposing of a problem bear in the first place. “Sell a tag for problem bears, and have a list of hunters. Tell them they have 12 to 24 hours to get out here and start hunting, or it goes to the next person. People pay thousands for elk tags, imagine how much they would pay for a grizzly bear,” he said.

Kristen Kipp and Trina Jo Bradley — two women who were appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock to serve on the state’s new Grizzly Bear Advisory Council earlier this year — each gave powerful testimonies of how their personal lifestyles have been affected by grizzly bears.

Kipp is a member of the Blackfeet tribe and the Blackfeet Stockgrowers Association.

“I was born and raised on the Blackfeet reservation and have been around bears my whole life. … Twenty years ago, I noticed a change in grizzly activity. In almost 100% of interactions I had before, the bears would look at you and go their separate ways. Now, we’re having more people be stalked, charged and mauled,” she said. “The most impactful thing that happened to me was having my 4-year-old daughter, when she was a baby … the sound of her crying brought in a grizzly 10 feet from my house.”

Kipp said she would also like to see the grizzly bear delisted from the ESA, and she believes Montanans are responsible enough to preserve the species under local management.

“I believe that we can coexist. The Blackfeet have coexisted with the grizzly for 10,000 years,” she said.

Bradley is a livestock producer living in Valier and vice president of the Marias River Livestock Association. “My 11-year-old daughter can’t go outside by herself for fear of bears. I had to board up her window because she’s so afraid,” she said. “I carry a gun and bear spray every time I leave the house. … It’s like living in a gang neighborhood where you might get killed at any second. I don’t mean that to sound dramatic, but that’s the reality.”

As the discussion came to its close, Gianforte addressed Bernhardt directly, saying, “I just ask that you do everything in your power to help us.”

“I don’t think I fully understood the issue’s severity until recently,” said Bernhardt. “The takeaway of the day is people are living in a new environment. There’s a long regulatory process in making changes, but wherever we are in that process, I understand now that problems are different today than they were a few years ago, and our thinking needs to reflect that.”

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