Viewpoint: Grizzly kill permits put ranchers above all others on public lands
Montanans have worked for decades to restore our state animal, the grizzly bear. We’ve come a long way in recovering grizzlies in their core habitats, the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems, and beyond. That’s happened because of hard work by landowners, conservationists, hunters, state and federal wildlife officials, tribal interests and many more.
That’s why it’s so unfortunate that our state legislature passed a bill this year allowing ranchers to kill grizzly bears on our public lands, just for being there. If that sounds alarmist and unreal, it’s not: the Legislature and the Gianforte administration want to draw hard lines and limit grizzlies to isolated populations, with little chance of real, long-term grizzly conservation.
Real grizzly bear recovery would include bears occupying all of their designated recovery zones, including the Bitterroot ecosystem with the excellent grizzly habitat it provides, as well as areas in between recovery zones. And it would include an interconnected population of grizzlies, with genetic exchange so populations aren’t isolated. But actions by Montana would make that impossible.
Senate Bill 295, passed earlier this year, allows Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to issue kill permits to ranchers for bears they deem “threatening.” But the bill has no definition of threatening, and the rules proposed even deem a bear in “proximity” to livestock as eligible to be killed, even when there is no conflict whatsoever.
Grizzly bears are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act, but if those protections are removed, as Montana is pushing for, the state will have management authority and this egregious bill will go into effect. This is not the assurance the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs that Montana has adequate regulations to manage grizzlies in the long term.
This bill mirrors a measure passed a decade ago applying to wolves. Montana FWP has used that law sparingly, with an average of fewer than 10 wolves killed every year.
But the key difference is that the bill pertaining to wolves was restricted to private land. SB 295 has no such limit, and it would open up the killing of grizzlies on our public lands, far from human habitation, where native wildlife makes its home.
This bill puts the interests of a small group – ranchers who use public land to graze their livestock, over everything else. It sets a dangerous precedent that we will eliminate native wildlife to accommodate cattle and sheep, for which ranchers are paying a fraction of the market cost to graze. There are many proven, effective ways to prevent conflicts between livestock and grizzly bears, yet SB 295 does not require any of these measures before a grizzly bear can be killed even without any conflict, and even on public lands.
Public lands belong to all of us, and wildlife is supposed to be held by the state in trust for everyone. Instead, the Gianforte administration is set to hand out permits to kill our state animal – one we have spent tens of millions of dollars and decades to recover – to benefit a handful of ranchers who graze livestock on public lands.
The regulations being drafted to implement these kill permits are ambiguous, lack no standards and give tremendous authority for ranchers and Montana FWP to kill bears in habitats critical to grizzly bear survival and recovery. The American people, who value wildlife and wildlands that we all collectively own, will not stand by and allow native wildlife to be killed for its mere presence on our public lands.
The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission will meet August 17 to decide on regulations to implement SB 295. If you oppose the killing of grizzly bears on public lands, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nick Gevock is a field organizer for wildlands and wildlife in the Northern Rockies for the Sierra Club.