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Claims Helena undermining griz conservation

by Derek Goldman
| February 15, 2023 2:00 AM

The grizzly bear is a unique and vital part of Montana’s wildlife heritage. Our state animal, the great bear once roamed throughout the plains of central Montana, before being extirpated from the flatlands by settlers, and relegated to the mountainous country of western Montana. Now, after decades of protection and conservation work—catalyzed and supported by its protection under the Endangered Species Act, the grizzly bear is beginning to recover in at least two out of six designated “recovery zones.”

But changes in leadership and direction in Helena over the past two years threaten to bring to a grinding halt the many years of work by state, tribal and federal wildlife biologists, conservation groups, hunters and landowners.

I have grave concerns about the recent and ongoing trajectory of state policy with regard to grizzly bears (and other large carnivores).

In 2021, the legislature passed several bills that contradict and undermine the letter and spirit of previous commitments that Montana has made to grizzly bear conservation. Subsequently, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission took similar actions.

And throughout the past two years, the legislature has continued the open season on Montana’s gray wolves, proposing and adopting extreme, ethically-questionable policies that seem to indicate what the future of grizzly bear state management might look like, should the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ever decide to remove Endangered Species Act protections for grizzlies in Montana.

Now in 2023, the current legislature is contemplating additional bills that further undermine grizzly bear conservation and recovery: expanded use of snares, bait and hounds in important grizzly habitat, and authorizing landowners to shoot grizzly bears “threatening” livestock—even on public land.

Additionally, a draft statewide grizzly bear management plan released in December by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks falls far short of providing the necessary commitment to continued grizzly bear conservation and recovery in Montana.

The plan fails to adequately address demographic and habitat threats to grizzly bears, it relies too heavily on lethal removal of bears in some places, and it fails to commit to interconnecting isolated populations of grizzly bears in the state. Mostly though, the plan is being drafted in a policy environment that is being driven by special interests who are hostile and aggressive toward native carnivores.

This is bad news for bears, and also for Montanans who recognize that grizzly bears are part of what makes Montana such a special place. Indeed, according to a 2020 survey conducted by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the University of Montana, 85 percent of Montana residents agree with that sentiment. Additionally, 80 percent of residents believe it is important to maintain a self-sustaining grizzly bear population in Montana; a plurality (42 percent) agree that grizzly bears should be able to live anywhere in the state that they become established on their own; 60 percent of Montanans believe that people should learn to live with grizzly bears near their homes; and a whopping 92 percent said they are willing to secure bear attractants on their own property in order to reduce grizzly bear conflict.

Now that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced it is conducting a status review of grizzly bears, I am confident that the Service will take a full accounting of the entire scope of aggressive, reckless policies on large carnivores that have been moving through Helena over the past couple of years. Endangered Species Act protections for grizzly bears should remain in place until the bear is secure in all of its designated recovery zones, and until the state of Montana can demonstrate a real commitment to long-term stewardship and conservation of this iconic western species.

Derek Goldman writes from Missoula, Montana, where he serves as the National Field Director and Northern Rockies Field Representative for the Endangered Species Coalition.