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Montana Wildlife Federation: Grizzly bear council shows how Montanans solve problems

A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. (National Park Service)

Gov. Steve Bullock’s order creating a grizzly bear advisory council exemplifies how Montanans work together to solve the difficult issues around wildlife. The council is needed, creates an opportunity to bring Montanans together, and can help shape the future of managing an expanding population of this valued native wildlife species.  

As Montanans, we should look at grizzly bear conservation with an incredible amount of pride. Grizzlies were teetering on the brink of extinction in 1975 when they went on the federal Endangered Species Act {ESA} list. Strong conservation measures such as habitat protection, sanitation requirements and conflict prevention, along with a robust monitoring and education effort, helped our grizzly populations grow. Now the populations in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems meet the criteria for ESA delisting, truly something to celebrate.

But that doesn’t mean that grizzly recovery efforts are complete or that management challenges have ended. As grizzly bears expand into much of their former habitat, they will find a landscape much different than the wild lands in and around our two national parks. The challenges of having bears in more places is that much greater. New management approaches are essential.

While we have learned much in managing grizzlies, we cannot take the same conservation model that has worked in the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and paste it onto landscapes with farms, ranches and communities. At the same time, we should not draw a hard line and remove or kill every grizzly bear that crosses it.

So where does that leave us? The key to long-term grizzly conservation is managing a landscape where they are able to survive and co-exist with us, while also acknowledging the real impacts this magnificent species has on people, livestock and communities. It’s a difficult challenge, but like so many resource issues, Montanans are up to the task.

The council will be an opportunity to bring diverse interests together to look at those areas where grizzlies are expanding as well as those needed for long-term species conservation. These areas will need tangible, on-the-ground measures implemented to co-exist with grizzlies.

We have excellent examples where that’s already happening. In the Blackfoot and Centennial valleys, programs to remove livestock carcasses, fence off attractants and use range riders are working to dramatically decrease grizzly conflicts.

However, each valley and mountain range in Montana has different issues to address. Those with large areas of public lands will have different challenges than those dominated by private land. Conflict prevention will be important in all of them.

These efforts must be locally driven, yet statewide resources in the form of guidance and funding need to be available for them to succeed. Over time we should be able to co-exist with bears, provide connectivity between the major grizzly population centers and ensure long-term, healthy grizzly populations with good genetic exchange and distribution.

In addition to those management measures that have allowed for the expansion of our grizzly populations, hunting needs to be part of that management. Regulated hunting is part of sound wildlife management, and every species that is valued by hunters has thrived. Grizzly bears should be no exception.

Grizzly bears are Montana’s state animal, the mascot for one of our public universities and the logo of our state wildlife agency. They’re essential to Montana. By working together to solve problems, we can co-exist with a healthy grizzly population, reduce conflicts, and consider people’s needs. It’s the Montana way we solve problems.

Nick Gevock is the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation.

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