All sides criticize grizzly bear report for trophy hunt impasse

An old, female grizzly was relocated to the North Fork of the Flathead drainage from the lower Dupuyer Creek area in May 2019 following a livestock depredation. (Montana FWP Prairie Bear Monitor)

After a year of collaborative work, the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council report is out, but citizens and lawmakers are already questioning findings and rejecting recommendations.

On Thursday, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks director Martha Williams presented the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council report to the Legislative Environmental Quality Council after Gov. Steve Bullock released the final version.

“The Grizzly Bear Advisory Council members embraced a true commitment to collaboration in the interest of identifying common ground on a host of issues facing conservation and management of this iconic species,” Bullock said in a release. “I’m grateful for their hard work and look forward to advancing the implementation of many of their recommendations in concert with partners across the state.”

Williams echoed that praise, adding that the report will form the foundation of FWP’s grizzly bear management plan, now being developed.

“There’s a lot of work to do to support the recommendations, and it will take significant effort to get there,” Williams said.

Council member Nick Gevock, who is also a spokesman for the Montana Wildlife Federation, told the EQC that the council had 18 “incredibly diverse views,” but they were able to come together to reach consensus on a number of issues, the main one being the need for more resources, monetary and otherwise, to manage bears where they are now and to get ahead of grizzly bear expansion.

“I think our report will be a really good roadmap for the statewide grizzly plan that FWP has already begun. That’s where we’ll get into a bit more of the sort of nitty-gritty details of future grizzly conservation and management,” Gevock said. “My personal goal is I want to see really tangible things come out of this. I don’t want this to be a report that sits on the shelf and gathers dust.”

One thing the grizzly bear council couldn’t reach consensus on was the question of whether Montana should have a trophy hunt once the bear is delisted.

The council reached the impasse after hearing from both U.S. and Canadian biologists who observed past grizzly hunting seasons and concluded that hunting promotes hunter satisfaction more than anything else and does little to reduce human-bear conflict.

“Grizzly bears are very much a different species than wolves in the sense that they’re solitary animals. So they don’t necessarily learn like wolves (that run in packs),” Gevock said. “Hunting could affect the density of bears in areas. But, at the scale that we’ll be looking at down the road, hunting has not proven to be as much of a deterrent. In other words, a dead bear doesn’t learn anything.”

Most of the EQC members had not read the report yet, but some took the opportunity to voice their opinions.

Sen. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, questioned what the state intends to do when a grizzly bear kills someone on the plains. In spite of Gevock’s explanation of the science, Hamlett also cited the wolf hunting season as proof that a hunting season is needed to make bears stay away from people, even though most bears already try to avoid people.

“I have a real concern with kids out playing in rural areas, and nobody’s ever seen a grizzly bear there before,” Hamlett said. “Also, animals are a lot smarter than most humans give them credit for. If they get pressured, if they know that certain things can happen when they come into areas, they might give that area a go-by.”

Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, asked Williams if the advisory council’s lack of consensus meant FWP wouldn’t consider hunting as a management tool in its plan.

“We’ve seen when we delisted the wolf, (the hunt) leveled off to a sustainable number. I think it decreased the depredation, maybe because the wolves kind of got smart that they were actually being hunted,” White said. “I think may occur within the grizzly population.”

Williams said hunting would probably be considered in the plan, but the plan isn’t written yet. Once it is, it will have to go through public comment.

“I understand, to some degree, why (the council members) were not able to come to consensus is that hunting really boiled down to some values questions – I would argue less biological or management – but really came down to values,” Williams said. “So council’s work on that helps highlight that issue for all of us working on this. But I would imagine a plan would still discuss it as an option.”

Blowback to the inclusion of hunting in the report has been swift, a preview of the future public battle over FWP’s grizzly management plan. Some people questioned the purpose of the advisory council, calling it a sham from the start.

On Wednesday, Livingston-based large-carnivore biologist David Mattson sent an open letter to Bullock, Williams and the advisory council’s facilitators, criticizing the council’s makeup as being slanted toward certain stakeholders and the yearlong process as being politicized and less than transparent.

“From what I witnessed, the GBAC was in no small measure constituted and run to promote the removal of Endangered Species Act protections, followed by institution of a grizzly bear hunt, and this despite what was stated in the GBAC Charter,” Mattson wrote.

Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on the Grizzly Bear State Management Act, sponsored last year by Wyoming Sen. Michael Enzi, to remove the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears from the Endangered Species list. Sen. Steve Daines and Chuck Roady of F.H. Stolze Land and Lumber Company spoke in favor of the bill.

“In my experience, those bears that are regularly accustomed to being around humans without a hunting component, such as in Yellowstone National Park, behave very differently than bears that are in areas where they are subjected to hunting,” Roady said in his testimony.

Because Roady was also a member of the grizzly bear advisory council, grizzly bear advocates pointed to his testimony as a reason to question his intent on the council.

Bonnie Rice, representative for the Sierra Club’s Greater Yellowstone-Northern Rockies campaign, applauded the work of the advisory council related to improving coexistence between people and bears. But trophy hunting would endanger efforts to improve the connectivity needed to keep grizzly bear populations healthy, Rice said.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Council did not come out strongly against a trophy hunt which could dramatically set back recovery efforts,” Rice said in a statement. “Failing to recommend against a trophy hunt goes against an overwhelming majority of public comment as well as the position of Tribal Nations who hold the grizzly sacred and strongly oppose trophy hunting.”

The council received about 16,000 public comments over the course of the year. Combing through a representative sample of the comments, the Sierra Club found a majority of the comments oppose a hunt, even when only comments from Montana residents were considered.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project said FWP should pay more attention to the fact that the council couldn’t reach consensus.

“Most Montana residents and people across the country oppose hunting grizzly bears,” said Andrea Zaccardi, Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney. “Hopefully, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks will listen to and respect this majority. We’ve spent decades and millions of dollars working to secure a real future for grizzlies in Montana. It makes no sense to return to the days when they were chased and hunted.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.