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The grizzly facts

by WAYNE SIMONEAU
| November 1, 2023 2:00 AM

Response to opinion piece by Montana State Senator Jason Ellsworth and Montana State Senator Bruce Gillespie in the Oct. 11 Hungry Horse newspaper titled, “State should manage grizzlies.”

Let’s deconstruct the sensationalized and over-dramatic language used in the letter. The authors write:

“The recent spate of headlines about grizzly bear attacks and human-bear conflicts highlights the need  for the federal government to return management of grizzlies to the state of Montana.” 

There is always a spate (sudden rush or outpouring) of headlines when a person is injured or killed by a grizzly.  They are picked up and reported nationally every time. What has not actually occurred is a spate of injuries or deaths. 

Let’s contextualize the scale of the area occupied by grizzles. MFWP in their 2020 Grizzly Bear

Population Monitoring in the NCDE report list that figure as 67,652 square kilometers, or approximately  16,717,000 acres. The GYE occupied area is 70,101 square kilometers or 17,322,334 acres. Combined, this is an area larger than the entire state of Arkansas.

Important statistics the senators conveniently omit is the increase in human population in the wildland-urban interface in both the NCDE and GYE. The population in Flathead county has increased 19.2% since 2010, and Yellowstone county has  increased 14.7% since 2010. Many of these people moved to Montana without ever having lived in bear country, or are temporary residents. 

Living in bear country requires a level of personal responsibility to ensure personal safety, family safety, safety of neighbors, and pet and animal stock safety. There are costs to living in bear country, both financial and in human behavior. It costs money to secure attractants and secure livestock. It takes a concerted effort to modify or adapt one’s lifestyle to the reality that bears can be anywhere in bear country.

Add to that increase in population, the annual visitation numbers to both GNP and YNP. GNP through August had 2.45 million visitors. YNP had a staggering 4.16 million visitors through September. That’s a lot of people on the landscape.

There have been no deaths in the NCDE in 2023 and one death in the GYE. For YNP, since 1979 there have been only 44  injuries in 118 million visits. That equates to a probability of injury in one out of 2.7 million visits.

The senators somehow think transferring management to the State would eliminate human-bear incidents. SB 295 will  not magically alter bear behavior. The bill itself states in Section 1 87-5-301, “grizzly bear conservation is best served under state management and the local, state (redundant), tribal, and federal partnerships that fostered recovery …” 

A review of MFWP reports reinforces the fact the vast majority of incidents are due to humans failing to secure attractants. If passed, the state will still have to meet the minimum requirements for grizzly sustainabililty as hammered out by the IGBC.

The senators write, “Thousands of bears currently roam the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide.” 

Thousands in each recovery area -— that’s just not true. MFWP estimates the 2023 grizzly population at approximately 1,163 in the NCDE and a similar number for the GYE. 

The 2021 estimate was 1,063. When maps are created showing the expanded range of grizzlies it looks like a large area. In reality that area is an extrapolation of the detection locations or GPS-derived movement of tens of bears, not hundreds.

The senators are exaggerating the problem. The data by MFWP is clear. This is about power and control.  It has nothing to do with grizzly management. When you dig into the details you’ll find the current management scenario is working. Maybe the senators’ time would be better spent finding Justine, Erik and Jamie more help.

Wayne Simoneau field biologist on the Greater Glacier Bear DNA Project and lead geographic information scientist on the Northern Continental Divide Grizzly Bear Project.