Montana’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council
Members convene in Helena for the first time
An advisory council to help determine how Montana and its partners will collectively manage and conserve grizzly bears met in Helena Oct. 3 - 4.
As some grizzly bear populations continue to grow and their distribution expands alongside Montana’s growing human population, more people are living, working and recreating in bear country. Conflicts are becoming more frequent and management challenges are requiring prioritization. Gov. Steve Bullock and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks appointed an 18-citizen advisory council to facilitate the statewide discussion.
“What sets this group a part is their capacity to be independent thinkers and share their perspectives,” Gov. Bullock’s Natural Resources Policy Advisor Patrick Holmes said.
The 18 members serve as volunteers, representative of different perspectives, backgrounds and areas in Montana who have a connection to grizzly bears.
Five of the six recovery zones that were established in the lower-48 for grizzly bears are in or partially in Montana. They are managed separately under the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, which coordinates federal, state and tribal stakeholders in managing, researching and monitoring grizzlies and executing recovery plans.
The 1993 update to the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan was a milestone in grizzly recovery. The document began with an essay by American author, scientist, forester, ecologist and conservationist Aldo Leopold, “Escudilla.”
“The grizzly bear is a symbolic and living embodiment of wild nature uncontrolled by man. Entering into grizzly country represents a unique opportunity – to be part of an ecosystem in which man is not necessarily the dominant species.”
As of June 2019, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services reported more than 1000 grizzly bears in the North Continental Divide Ecosystem and over 700 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. According to USFWS, by 2005 the GYE grizzly population had grown past the federal recovery goal of 500 and delisted them two years later.
A Missoula federal judge ordered the reenlistment of Yellowstone grizzly bears to the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species in 2009. The decision was based on to the scientific knowledge at the time and the unenforceable and inadequate conservation strategies to maintain protection of grizzlies.
The decision went through the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2011, Judge Richard C. Tallman wrote in his decision, “The Service’s delisting decision, the subject of this appeal, raises a host of scientific, political, and philosophical questions regarding the complex relationship between grizzlies and people in the Yellowstone region.”
Yellowstone grizzlies were delisted and reenlisted after court rulings in 2018. Then the ruling was appealed May 2019, returning to the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where it remains to be decided on.
The legal battles over grizzly bears have created public uncertainty about delisting grizzlies from the ESA, according to the Montana Governor’s Office.
“We see delisting not as the finish line but a mile marker along the way,” Holmes said.
GYE grizzlies have about doubled their range since they were listed on the ESA in the ‘70s. Their distribution spans into Montana’s southwest counties including Madison County, where within three weeks of the 2019 archery hunting season three grizzly bear attacks occurred and MT FW&P confirmed multiple grizzlies near cattle carcasses which had died from consuming larkspur. In the same area, there were at least two livestock depredations from grizzly bears.
According to MT FW&P, they investigated over 100 grizzly bear-human incidents, ranging from attacks and property damage to public safety concerns and unnatural food fixations, in Montana’s portion of the GYE in 2018.
Over the next 12 months the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council will hold six to eight public meetings in various communities in Montana. Their first meeting featured presentations on grizzly bear biology, ecology, management and legal specifications. They discussed the key issues and challenges that they will be addressing.
The council has six representatives of livestock producers from Wyola, Dell, Big Timber, Gallatin Gateway, St. Ignatius and Valier. Another six members represent conservation groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, the Western Landowners Alliance in Helena, and the Yaak Valley Forest Council in Troy. The other six members represent the areas as the professional outdoor industry, tribal members, hunters, wildlife enthusiasts or community leaders.
MT FW&P is providing staff support to the council and involving its partners, which include state and federal wildlife agencies, Native American tribes, universities, conservation groups and land owners. On their website, http://fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/management/grizzlyBear/gbac.html, information about the council and public comment is available.
“Public engagement is encouraged to be a part of the process,” Holmes said.
The council’s final objective is to provide the Governor’s Office with clear and actionable recommendations on the long-term management, conservation and recovery of grizzly bears in Montana.