Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists prepare to transport a tranquilized grizzly that wandered into a shop on the Birch Creek Hutterite Colony near Dupuyer in 2018. Credit: Montana FWP

CHOTEAU — Grizzly bears are moving into parts of Montana that hadn’t seen the animals in more than a century, increasingly coming into conflict with people and livestock, and leading to calls for reduced protections and more aggressive management. On Saturday, at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Ranger District office in Choteau, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt met with an invitation-only audience that was nearly unanimous in its assessment of the issue. The first half of the hour-long meeting was closed to media. The second half comprised the presentation of local concerns to Bernhardt and a brief Q&A with reporters. 

The number of livestock killed by grizzly bears has skyrocketed in recent years, said John Steuber, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services in Montana.

Kristen Kipp, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, said ranchers on the Blackfeet reservation lose about 3 percent of their cattle to grizzly depredation, and that for some reservation ranchers the number is closer to 10 percent.

Tami Heilemann / Department of the Interior

Montana U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, left, and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt take in the view at the Rasmuson Wildlife Center in Depuyer on Oct. 5, 2019. Credit: Tami Heilemann / Department of the Interior

“As the grizzly bear population grows and expands, there’s going to be more livestock conflict,” Steuber said. “They’re now over 50 miles east of the mountains. They’re out in the wheat and barley country.”

Wildlife Services, which is tasked with resolving “wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist,” is managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and is one among a partnership of federal and state agencies that manage the bears. 

The meeting was organized by Montana congressman Greg Gianforte to lobby Bernhardt to remove federal Endangered Species Act protections for grizzly bears. The event was attended by livestock producers; county, state, and federal government officials; representatives of hunting organizations; and members of a new grizzly bear council organized by Gov. Steve Bullock.

Public safety was a primary concern raised by attendees, who said bears are increasingly seen in town, on school playgrounds, and near homes. Ranchers also suggested that the federal government take a more active role in dealing with “problem bears,” and advocated increased funding for Wildlife Services. 

GIANFORTE: DELIST GRIZZLIES 

Grizzlies currently inhabit about 2 percent of their historical range, and are largely confined to two isolated populations. About 1,000 bears live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and about 700 live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

The federal government has twice attempted to delist Greater Yellowstone grizzlies as a distinct population segment, but federal judges overturned both rulings — most recently in September 2018 — after challenges by wildlife advocates. The federal government and the state governments of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho are currently appealing that decision.

“The bear has recovered, and they need to be delisted.”

—Congressman Greg Gianforte

The government has said it is also considering delisting the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly population. But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly recovery coordinator Hilary Cooley said last year that decision will likely wait until the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem case is resolved.

At the media session following the meeting, MTFP asked Bernhardt about delisting grizzlies in the NCDE. He said that would require a regulatory process, and “We haven’t started that process publicly, so we’ll evaluate that.”  

“We heard some powerful stories from folks that are living in an environment that’s different even than what they were accustomed to just a few years ago,” Bernhardt said. “In terms of my thinking as I walk out of here, I mean, it’s very simple. We need to make sure we’re properly allocating resources.”

Gianforte had a more succinct answer: “The bear has recovered, and they need to be delisted.”

Donors associated with the livestock industry contributed more than $275,000 to Gianforte’s 2018 re-election campaign, the most of any single industry, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics’ campaign finance-tracking website OpenSecrets.org. Gianforte is now running for governor. If grizzly bears are delisted, the state will assume management of the bears and likely institute a hunt.

As Interior Secretary, Bernhardt oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages species protected by the Endangered Species Act. Under Bernhardt, the department has implemented changes to ESA rules to assign dollar figures to the cost of protecting a species, lessen habitat protections, and make it less likely that a species can qualify for protection necessitated by habitat disruption caused by climate change.

Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, has said those rules help modernize the act, while wildlife advocates say they weaken necessary protections. Gianforte has introduced legislation that would further modify the act. 

USFWS has attempted to delist 36 species in the past 10 years, and federal courts have blocked 12 of those attempts, according to the Georgetown Environmental Law Review. Many of the attempts have focused on distinct population segments, but judges, including U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in the Yellowstone grizzly case, have tended to rule against such “balkanizations” of populations, which don’t consider the impact on the species as a whole.

CONNECTIVITY

Over the past few decades, grizzlies in the NCDE have lived mostly in a “recovery zone” that is 85 percent public land and includes Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. But that has changed in recent years.

The area occupied by grizzly bears in the NCDE has increased by 42 percent since 2004, and by 25 percent since 2010, according to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks

The increased dispersal shows that the grizzly population has recovered, said Tony Schoonen, chief of staff of the Boone and Crockett Club, the Missoula-based national hunting advocacy group that hosted a tour of the club-owned Rasmuson Wildlife Conservation Center in Dupuyer for Bernhardt and Gianforte Saturday morning before the meeting.

But leading grizzly researcher David Mattson said in an interview that it’s unlikely the population of one of the planet’s slowest-reproducing terrestrial mammals has increased by an equivalent percentage over the same time period. Mattson worked for two decades on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team responsible for federal research on Yellowstone grizzlies, and his studies provided evidence used to block the delisting of Yellowstone grizzlies.

“We don’t want to get rid of all the bears, because we don’t want to go through this endangered species thing again, but there has to be this happy medium.”


—Montana state Sen. Bruce “Butch” Gillespie

Rather, the bears are likely spreading out in search of food, Mattson said. Over the past three decades, whitebark pine, whose seeds are a staple in many grizzly diets, has been decimated by whitebark pine blister rust in the NCDE. Additionally, increased fires have led to fewer berries on the landscape. The bears are dispersing to look for food, and on the Rocky Mountain Front, that food is often livestock, Mattson said.

Grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have similarly moved into new territories to adapt to declines of whitebark pine, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and elk.

“The bears actually face a lot of uncertainty right now,” Mattson said. 

In his ruling blocking the delisting of Greater Yellowstone bears, Judge Christensen found that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not properly considered the impact delisting would have on the species as a whole. The judge also found that the service should not have ruled to delist because the GYE population likely does not contain enough genetic diversity to sustain its population in isolation.

That finding suggested that in order for the GYE population to qualify for delisting, the population needs to be linked with the NCDE population, from which it has been isolated for more than a century.

With bears in both ecosystems expanding their ranges, reconnection of the populations is drawing closer. FWP found that at their nearest approach, southwest of Butte, the distance between the two occupied ranges is just 45 miles. Still, barriers including private property and roads exist. No Yellowstone grizzly has been confirmed to cross Interstate 90, for example.

Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams said in an interview Saturday that the agency considers both populations to be recovered, and that habitat connectivity is not required for delisting.

Williams also said reports of increasing predation of livestock and public safety concerns at Saturday’s meeting were to be expected. 

“I don’t think it’s any huge surprise when you have more bears moving into places where they haven’t always been,” Williams said. “It seems sometimes there are fewer conflicts where bears have been for a while, where people have figured out tools to help keep them out of trouble.”

‘TOO MANY BEARS’

Gianforte initially invited Bernhardt to Montana in September, but that meeting was canceled at the last minute. At the time, Dave McEwen, a past president of the Montana Wool Growers Association, said the organization had asked Gianforte to increase Wildlife Services funding to manage grizzly bears.

“We should be moving from recovery management to management, and we’re not doing that,” McEwen said at Saturday’s meeting. “I ask that Wildlife Services lead in that regard.”

“It’s crisis management at this point,” Gianforte added.

Kipp, a member of the governor’s grizzly bear advisory council, said that while her yard in Browning has electric fencing, and she has dogs trained to alert her family to bears, she often sees bears nearby when her children are outside playing.

As predation and intrusion into human environments has increased, so have grizzly mortalities. Both ecosystem populations had record mortality levels in 2018, with 51 bears killed in the NCDE, and 69 in the GYE. That amounts to about 10 percent of the estimated population in the GYE and 5 percent in the NCDE — numbers wildlife advocates say are unsustainable.

The leading cause of grizzly death is management removals by state wildlife agencies in response to cattle depredations and bears getting into human foods and attractants. 

Tami Heilemann / Department of Interior

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, Montana U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, and U.S. Wildlife Services Montana Director John Steuber, left to right, discuss grizzly incursions at a meeting in Choteau on Oct. 5, 2019. Credit: Tami Heilemann / Department of Interior

Wildlife Services investigates depredations of livestock by mountain lions, wolves, and grizzly bears, enabling ranchers to claim reimbursement of losses from the Montana Livestock Loss Board. Federal officials investigated at least 156 reported incidents of grizzly bear predation in fiscal year 2019, which ended Sept. 30, Steuber said. In fiscal year 2013, the division investigated just 25 incidents of predation. An incident may include more than one animal killed, he said.

Chris Servheen, who retired in 2016 after working as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator for 35 years, said later in an interview that the NCDE population has met recovery goals. Even so, Servheen said, he doesn’t think Wildlife Services needs more funding to deal with the bears. He said the agency already promptly responds to reported depredations, and that it’s not clear what additional funding would accomplish.

So far this year, the board has awarded $168,996.01 in depredation reimbursements. Grizzlies accounted for fewer than half of the 251 losses attributed to predators.

Doreen Gillespie, a member of the Livestock Loss Board, said at the meeting that many depredations by large predators like bears can be difficult to prove, suggesting that actual grizzly depredation numbers are higher than reported.

“Those are just the losses that we know about,” she said.

Gillespie also said that livestock losses aren’t the only impact on Rocky Mountain Front residents, who have to make additional accommodations to the bears’ presence. For example, Gillespie said, she has to fence off her grain bins and keep her dog food indoors.

Her husband, Bruce “Butch” Gillespie, a state senator from Ethridge, described bears as an economic drain on the area and said state resources currently spent investigating and reimbursing livestock losses could be better applied to infrastructure, schools, and law enforcement.

“There’s way too many bears,” he said. “How do you manage bears out where there is private property? Sure, the Bob Marshall, you bet. We don’t want to get rid of all the bears, because we don’t want to go through this endangered species thing again, but there has to be this happy medium.”

Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.