A citizen’s advisory group has finalized its recommendations on how Montana should manage grizzly bears throughout the state. But just like the rest of Montana, they couldn’t reach consensus on whether to recommend a hunt.
On Wednesday, the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council made final edits to its 20-page report of guiding principles and recommendations for state management once the grizzly bear is delisted. Now, facilitators Heather Stokes and Shawn Johnson will do final formatting to get the report ready to turn in to Gov. Steve Bullock on Sept. 1.
“There’s a lot of excitement coming out of the governor’s office in anticipation of the final recommendations and really wanting to put a spotlight on this group’s work,” said Charlie Sperry, Fish, Wildlife & Parks Responsive Management supervisor.
The 18-member citizen’s council has met almost monthly, and sometimes more often, for the past year as it tried to first learn about grizzly bear issues and challenges, and then come up with suggestions to deal with them.
In December, after having learned a little about genetics, connectivity and all the things bear biologists have to consider when they have to respond to a conflict, some were voicing concern that they might not be able to grapple with all the aspects of such a large issue.
They split into smaller groups just to get some words down on paper. Then they’d discuss, a rancher working with a biologist from an environmental organization, an Eastern Montana landowner working with a hunting representative. Little by little, they hammered out recommendations and principles that all could agree on.
The question of a grizzly bear hunt was the one recommendation the council couldn’t agree on.
In April, the council heard from a panel of biologists who talked about whether a hunt was really effective. For example, does a hunt make bears more afraid of people? How does a hunt affect the demographics of a population? They also took a stab at whether a hunt really helped social tolerance.
The council had a fair amount of back-and-forth regarding the hunt and finally an anonymous survey was sent to the council member. Thirteen of the 18 supported the idea of Montana eventually having a grizzly bear hunt, with two surveys not returned.
Since they couldn’t agree, they decided to outline in the report their consideration for having and not having a hunt.
“We were tasked with framing our considerations for hunting and no hunt in a way that better reflected our discussion around it since we couldn’t reach consensus,” said council member Robin King. “Instead of having the perception that we were sort of going at each other, we just wanted to fully demonstrate what those considerations were.”
In addition to listing the pros and cons of a hunt, the council members who support an eventual hunt put together a list of guidelines “if a hunt were to occur.”
Other than that, the council had just a few final paragraphs to agree on during Wednesday’s Zoom meeting.
They made a few changes to their 18 guiding principles regarding grizzly bears that Montanans and wildlife managers should understand and uphold. Some were ideas as straightforward as people needing to be aware of and prepared for grizzly bears living in Montana while others were more complicated, such as helping grizzly bear populations compensate for the effect of climate change.
They added some guidelines highlighting the fact that the resources are needed to be able to educate people and manage bears are limited. So a balance needs to be maintained between bear presence and the monetary resources available, especially as the grizzly population expands into new areas.
Over several meetings, the term “social tolerance” was found to mean different things to different people. So they added a recommendation that one of the aims of agency management decisions should be to cultivate what the agencies see as social tolerance.
Conflict reduction is obviously important for grizzly survival, and the report makes recommendations for what people should do in developed areas, on agricultural lands, on state and federal lands and specifically addresses waste management.
The council knew that human garbage is an attractant for bears, so the best solution is to have bear-proof garbage containers. But there’s a cost that either individuals or communities would have to pay. So in areas where bears are likely to go but haven’t arrived yet, the council encouraged communities to explore how they might deal with sanitation at some future time.
Recreational activities in bear habitat can increase the likelihood of conflict, as evidence by the few recent news reports of bicyclists running into bears. Wildlife advocates have questioned whether the Flathead National Forest should permit races in bear country.
So the council approved a recommendation requiring FWP to analyze “new and proposed recreation activities” in grizzly habitat and added a phrase saying the agency should “move or reroute activities as determined by analysis.”
Throughout the year, council members repeatedly brought up the problem of finding funding and resources. They’d heard from wildlife agencies that biologists don’t have the manpower to be able to respond to all the calls they get. A lot of problems could be solved with electric fencing, but that costs money. Educating people not used to dealing with bears costs money.
The council members could come up ways to deal with those, but they were always aware that the recommendations couldn’t become a reality without money. And coming up with ideas for funding proved to be more difficult. That’s why they added one more recommendation: “Establishing diverse, alternative, and sustainable economic streams would benefit both grizzly bears and people.”
“It’s just a big topic so we’re trying to streamline the recommendation. And also note that it’s going to take a lot of different economic streams for this,” said council member Erin Edge.
Wednesday was the council’s final meeting, although all were invited to Helena when the report is presented to the governor. Although a final Zoom meeting felt anticlimactic – no handshakes or hugs goodbye – the council members sounded satisfied.
“I think we really made some positive strides toward some good consensus throughout the rest of the council,” said council member Jonathan Bowler. “In the end, I think we’ve come up with some pretty durable recommendations out of things that not long ago were really hard for some of us to agree on.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.