Commenters protest grizzly-shooting rule, lack of FWP notification
(Missoula Current) Montanans recently weighed in on whether Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks should allow livestock producers to shoot grizzly bears that threaten livestock on public-land leases, and some complained that few people were aware of the meeting where they could provide comment.
On Friday morning, Alexander Scolavino, FWP attorney, hosted a Zoom meeting to take comments on a new FWP rule related to grizzly bear management. Friday's meeting was the only public forum for providing comments that will be considered by the FWP commission. Written comments must be submitted to FWP by 5 p.m. on Monday.
The creation of the rule was prompted by Senate Bill 295 sponsored by Sen. Bruce Gillespie, R-Ethridge, and passed in the 2023 Legislature.
Under SB 295, prior to delisting, the FWP commission would pass rules “to allow a livestock owner or other authorized person to take a grizzly bear at any time without a permit or license from the department when a grizzly bear is attacking or killing livestock.” The commission would set a quota for bears killed in this manner, but the commission is also allowed to change the quota later, under the bill.
SB 295 was amended mid-session to say “nonlethal and preventative measures” would be used to manage the bear in addition to trapping and lethal measures.
Much of the bill’s language is similar to a 2013 bill that allows landowners to kill wolves threatening people or livestock, except that bill limited the killing to private land. SB295 does not. Some ranchers lease grazing allotments on federal and state land, so SB 295 opponents have repeatedly testified that not specifying private land leaves it open for livestock producers to kill grizzlies on public land.
During Friday’s Zoom call, about 16 people provided comments, although several who phoned in had trouble getting unmuted after Scolavino initially gave incorrect directions. A majority -13 - opposed several aspects of the proposed rule and asked that the commission reject the rule as proposed. No commissioners appeared to be present on the call.
“These permits should be excluded from public land. This rule leaves the definition of what is a ‘threat’ and what are ‘nonlethal measures’ to the discretion of the FWP director and that is vague language. There’s no real standard there or definitions. When this bill was coming, they said they’d take care of it in rule-making and the rule is still vague,” said Nick Gevock, Sierra Club spokesman.
Mike Bader, Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force consultant, said this year’s grizzly-bear mortality is already high with 41 known deaths so far in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
“All sources of human caused mortality need to be limited to the most extent possible. Allowing ranchers to use lethal control is over the line, especially on public lands,” Bader said.
Ranchers, on the other hand, supported the rule, saying that the ability to use lethal control was just another tool they could use to protect their investment.
Trina Joe Bradley, Rocky Mountain Front Ranchlands Group executive director and member of former Gov. Steve Bullock’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council, said livestock producers always use conflict prevention measures with all predators when and where they can.
“The threat definition comes up a lot, and that’s something that producers are also working on defining. But not every producer thinks a grizzly bear present is a threat,” Bradley said.
Karli Johnson of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation said that ranchers wanted the commission to remove a requirement it added during its Aug. 17 meeting where it initially heard the new rule.
On Aug. 17, FWP Commissioner Jeff Burrows, after hearing public comment, proposed a requirement that ranchers should have a plan on how they would first deal with grizzly bears in a nonlethal manner. The requirement was later adjusted to say “the livestock owner has demonstrated an effort to utilize non-lethal measures as determined by the department director or designee” before they could get a permit to kill a bear.
Johnson said the original rule without the added requirement gave ranchers more flexibility.
“Preventative measures can be difficult to implement on public land. Preventative measures can be difficult to recognize and can put the public in a situation that could be dangerous. And producers may not be using preventative measures because of that” Johnson said. “We’re not asking for open season; we’re asking for the ability to address problem bears that are threatening our livestock regardless of they may be.”
Stephen Capra of Full Visions Conservation said it could be equally dangerous allowing ranchers to shoot bears on public land.
“Imagine a scenario where a rancher is on public land grazing in a remote area, shoots a bear but doesn’t kill it, and now that bear is wounded. The situation presents itself for people to get killed by that bear because of that action. This seems like a reckless situation you’re setting up,” Capra said. “Far more cows and calves are dying from falls, from lightning, from disease. Any business has risk.”
Scolavino told those at Friday’s meeting that “the comments will be addressed via a response in the adoption notice at the Dec. 13 commission meeting.”
At the end of the meeting, commenter Jim Bell noted that there was poor attendance and that “a great many would-be participants did not know of this hearing.”
In August, FWP commissioners had encouraged the public to comment on the rule during this comment period, because the comments made during the Aug. 17 meeting would not be included in the record.
The online meeting was originally scheduled for Oct. 20, but on Oct. 2, FWP put out a news release saying it had been postponed until Nov. 17 and that a link would be provided later. On Oct. 23, FWP published a public announcement about the hearing that included dial-in information within the downloadable notice dated Oct. 20. No subsequent notification was provided.
After the meeting, some questioned why there was no day-of notification of the meeting on the FWP website; no mention of it on the FWP Public Comment Opportunities webpage; or why the Zoom meeting wasn’t broadcast on the FWP YouTube channel like all the commission meetings are, since it’s commission business.
As of Friday, the Public Comment Opportunities webpage lists 18 regulations and rules for public comment that the FWP Commission will consider in December, but the grizzly rule was not included.
Scolavino said the proposal notice had the Zoom information on it and the notice was submitted to the Secretary of State’s website.
“In the future, I’ll try to speak to the department to see if there’s anything additional we can do to make sure the public has more notice of such,” Scolavino said.
Derek Goldman of the Endangered Species Coalition said the Zoom weblink wasn’t added to the Oct. 23 announcement until Friday morning, which is why several people dialed in instead.
Those wishing to submit written comments should email them to email@example.com with subject "Grizzly Bear ARM” before 5 p.m. on Monday. Contact Christina Bell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (406) 444-4594 with any questions.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.