Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Conservationists are asking Montana's governor to veto a bill expanding ranchers' opportunities to kill grizzly bears once the species is removed from the Endangered Species List.

On Wednesday, 14 conservation organizations sent a letter to Gov. Greg Gianforte asking him to veto Senate Bill 295, “An Act revising laws related to the regulation of grizzly bears on delisting,” sponsored by Sen. Bruce Gillespie, R-Etheridge. An amended version of the bill passed the Senate last week and is now headed to the governor’s desk.

Under SB 295, prior to delisting, the Fish and Wildlife 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 adjust the quota later, under the bill.

Much of the bill’s language is similar to a 2013 bill that allows landowners to kill wolves threatening people or livestock, except that SB 295 doesn’t limit the killing to private land. Some ranchers lease grazing allotments on federal and state land, so SB 295 opponents have repeatedly testified that that omission leaves it open for livestock producers to kill grizzlies on public land.

“We recognize that occasionally a landowner—working alongside bear specialists at FWP and having exhausted nonlethal efforts to prevent grizzly bear conflict—might need a lethal solution for a truly dangerous or habituated bear in their own barnyard. However, public land is a different scenario. Here, wildlife make their home, while livestock graze seasonally at the pleasure of - and subsidized by - the general public, often far from towns and ranches,” the letter said.

SB 295 also says that once the grizzly is delisted, if a bear is threatening livestock or if it poses a threat to people by being close to people or houses, a livestock producer or other person must report it to the FWP director, who will then issue a permit to kill the bear.

In their letter, the conservation groups point out that the bill doesn’t define what qualifies as “threaten” or “proximity.”

“Is a bear that is a quarter-mile away ‘proximate?’ The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has previously expressed similar concerns over the lack of definition in the (law) around “threatening,” yet SB 295 fails to address those concerns, and in fact creates further ambiguity,” the letter said. “We know that your administration desires to see Endangered Species Act protections removed for grizzly bears in at least two ecosystems in Montana. That’s why we were surprised to see a bill to create new authorizations to kill grizzly bears come forward at this time, when one would expect the state would be demonstrating restraint.”

The Gianforte administration has petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the Northern Continental Divide grizzly population, and it supports Wyoming’s petition to delist the Yellowstone population.

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In early February, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams sent a letter to FWP Director Hank Worsech saying that he needed to oppose some of the bills that were being introduced in the Legislature because they would make delisting less likely if they passed. She pointed to bills passed by the 2021 Legislature that already had the Service questioning the safety of the bear if left in the hands of the state of Montana.

Williams said one 2021 bill in particular, SB 98, raised USFWS eyebrows, because it tried to legalize killing any grizzly bear that attacked, killed or threatened to kill a person or livestock before the grizzly was delisted and didn’t set a quota on such deaths.

Williams’ letter appears to have prompted some of the language that was inserted in SB 295. It also probably contributed to the defeat of Rep. Paul Fielder’s two bills to further expand trapping, snares and the use of dogs to hunt bears to all areas outside defined grizzly and lynx recovery zones.

SB 295 has been changed since its introduction in early February. After passing the Senate at the end of February, it landed in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee. The committee had just heard SB 85, which outlined the basics of how FWP would manage the grizzly bear after delisting but didn’t mention livestock producers. So the committee ended up rolling SB 85 into SB 295.

On April 12, Rep. Tom France, D-Missoula, said on the House floor that he had sat down with Gillespie and the conservation groups that strongly opposed SB 295 and they were able to compromise on several aspects. But the bill that hit the House floor still contained items that could hamper delisting, France said.

“The odd part of the equation, that was outside that discussion, was the department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. They continue to want to retain their autonomy to make decisions that are based on their priorities, less the priorities of conservations and hunters or ranchers and farmers,” France said.

In their letter, the conservation groups said the bill should have done more to encourage livestock producers to use nonlethal methods where possible to avoid human-grizzly conflict. They pointed to the success of the Blackfoot Challenge and other groups in the Centennial Valley and along the Rocky Mountain Front in limiting grizzly and livestock mortality. The bill does mention the use of nonlethal techniques but mainly addresses when killing bears would be allowed.

"This bill is misguided, creates a disincentive for different interests to work together toward grizzly recovery, and prioritizes the interests of livestock producers in wildlife habitat on public lands. It will give Montana a negative image, delay grizzly bear recovery and invite extensive litigation,” the letter concluded. "For all of these reasons, we respectfully ask that you veto SB 295."

The groups signing the letter included the Endangered Species Coalition, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Sierra Club, Montana Audubon, Humane Society of the U.S., Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, Friends of the Bitterroot, Friends of the Clearwater, Yaak Valley Forest Council, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance and Park County Environmental Council.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at