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A diverse group of Montanans appointed by the governor has yet to reach a consensus on a long-term strategy for how the state should manage grizzly bears, although its members say they are inching closer to finalizing their recommendations.

Trina Jo Bradley, a rancher from Valier, said a challenge for people on the governor’s council was “digging deep to not only consider our own opinions, but to remember we are representing the entire state.”

Bradley was one of 18 the governor’s office selected last July to serve on the citizen-led council, which was tasked with creating recommendations that will likely impact future management plans for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Council members spent met in Helena on July 21 and 22 discussing and arguing over sections of the document, Bradley said.

After Aug. 31, the group’s final recommendations will be handed over to the governor’s office. People can submit comments on the council’s recommendations through Aug. 4. The council will reconvene this Wednesday to discuss those comments.

Gov. Bullock ordered the council to form because “existing management plans did not fully anticipate grizzly bear distribution across the landscape,” according to the executive order.

Bradley, who has lived and worked on ranches surrounded by grizzlies her entire life, knows firsthand what it’s like to run a ranch near the apex predators. She grew up six miles west of Dupuyer, along the Rocky Mountain Front, where her family often encountered grizzlies.

Bradley remembers her family set rules for venturing outside, like never going alone, always taking a dog, and later, always bringing a gun. Bears would dig up the garden, rip hay bales apart, eat cattle feed and kill calves.

Because grizzly bears are a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, they can not be killed other than for self defense or defense of others.

Bradley said that in her experience, most bears do not kill livestock, but problem bears continue to kill.

These few problem bears pose a threat to communities that depend on raising livestock, according to Bradley. The Montana Department of Livestock reimburses ranchers who lose livestock to grizzlies, but proving a loss was because of a grizzly is difficult as carcasses are usually gone by the time an investigation begins, she said.

Even if a rancher is reimbursed, there is no price that can replace a lost calf, Bradley said. Losing a calf means losing the calves that calf would have produced.

Bradley thinks there are ways bears and people can coexist, but grizzlies need to be delisted to enable better management. Getting ahead of conflicts and improving awareness about the bears’ expansion into new territory is vital, she said.

When grizzly bears were listed as an endangered species in 1975, the federal government sought to conserve as many bears as possible. Bear populations in the lower 48 states had dropped from 50,000 bears in the early 19th century to fewer than 1,000, largely due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss.

Grizzlies only lived on small, isolated patches of land spread across Idaho, Wyoming, Washington and Montana — about 2% of their historic range.

Today, the conservation paradigm is changing. Approximately 1,900 grizzlies inhabit six different recovery zones in the West, experts estimate, and their ranges are spreading.

Bears are also no longer staying within the boundaries of zones that were designated for their conservation in 1993.

As grizzlies pop up in ranges they haven’t occupied in decades, conflict with people and livestock makes coexistence difficult.

To reach a statewide solution that balances conservation and safety, council members were selected to represent the diverse experiences of Montanans who interact with grizzlies.

Conservationists, ranchers, tribal members and hunters were among the council members appointed.

Dillon Tabish, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesperson, said recommendations from the council will have to undergo a public process to be incorporated into funding, rules or policy changes, as the council isn’t a rule-making authority.

However, the council’s final recommendations will help guide the state’s long-term vision over grizzly management regardless of the species’ protected status, especially as conflict between bears and people increases.

The latest draft from the council recommends more funding for education and outreach, non-lethal bear hazing tactics and conflict prevention. Members also recommend funding a full-time bear education coordinator and bear-resistant infrastructure in campgrounds.

The council has not yet decided whether it will recommend that the governor’s office and the Montana Legislature fully fund the Livestock Loss Board Trust Fund. The fund goes toward reimbursing ranchers who lose livestock to grizzlies.

Money from Congress pays for tools and strategies for preventing bears from preying on livestock, including fencing, carcass removal, guard dogs and range riders.

According to John Steuber, the USDA Wildlife Services state director, these non-lethal tactics can be effective, depending on the size of the rangeland and type of conflict.

Electric fencing is good at protecting smaller calving pens, but less practical on larger expanses of pasture.

Range riders, who track livestock and provide a human presence in wolf and bear country, are effective at preventing wolf kills, but less effective at deterring grizzlies. Yet, by identifying kills quickly, range riders increase the chances that livestock producers will be reimbursed for their losses.

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) recently hired two full-time range riders in the Kootenai and the Gravellies — a mountain range that is increasingly frequented by grizzlies. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition contributed funds to the new positions.

Steuber said he’s so far heard great things from landowners about the new range rider working in the Gravellies.

“He’s busy. He’s up on horseback every day,” Steuber said.

Steuber runs workshops to let livestock producers know what resources are available to them, though the workshops have been canceled this year because of COVID-19.

The non-lethal strategies and tools ranchers can use to prevent conflict are expensive, and “funding is always an issue,” Steuber said.

In their latest draft, the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council recommended providing livestock producers with resources “to implement appropriate conflict prevention measures on private and public lands.”

Council members also recommended that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks diversify agency funding, work with other agencies to establish a grizzly bear conservation fund, and consider redirecting tax revenue to fund conservation.

Members agreed connectivity between isolated populations of bears should be prioritized. Their draft recommends that agencies conserve bears in wildlife passage areas, which enable bears to safely travel in between recovery zones.

The Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan of 1993 established six grizzly bear recovery zones in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington to conserve the remaining grizzlies in the lower 48.

Four of these zones — the Northern Continental Divide, Greater Yellowstone, Bitterroot and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems — include areas of Montana.

Designated conservation zones and buffer areas in between have helped the species recover, but have also complicated management, since bears increasingly wander beyond the boundaries.

In their draft recommendations, council members did not come to a consensus on how bears found outside designated zones and connectivity areas should be managed. Of particular concern were bears that cross over into eastern Montana, a region of the state where bears are just starting to show up.

Some council members thought bears found in eastern Montana should be moved to the western portion of the state.

“Grizzly bears in eastern Montana do nothing to get grizzlies delisted,” said Lorents Grosfield, a Big Timber rancher and former Montana legislator, in the July 21 meeting. “The thing that’s going to get them delisted is to have them in the four recovery areas in significant numbers.”

Grosfield said resources for bear management in the east are limited, and he has yet to find anyone in eastern Montana who wants them there.

Erin Edge, a representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said she didn’t like the idea of managing bears differently based on lines on a map.

“I really am not supportive of drawing lines on a map where just because a bear may be in eastern Montana, that bear may be removed,“ she said.

Cole Mannix, an associate director of the Western Landowners Alliance, agreed the council did not have the expertise to draw lines to differentiate management in different areas. However, he said the council should recommend that FWP work with partners to distinguish between two different zones in the west and east where management could vary.

The council was also divided over whether hunting should play a role in grizzly management, if the species were to be delisted. Even after hours of debate, the group could not reach an agreement. Its most recent draft recommendations include two columns listing reasons that support and oppose hunting.

Supporters argued hunting could be a useful tool to manage the number of bears and their distribution, if regulated carefully.

Those opposed argued there isn’t sufficient data to prove hunting is effective for managing grizzlies, and current research shows conflict prevention and coexistence programs are better tactics.

Heather Stokes, an associate of the University of Montana’s Center for Natural Resources & Environmental Policy program who facilitates the advisory council meetings, said she believes members struggled to find consensus on the role of hunting because unlike other topics discussed, hunting seemed entrenched in each side’s values.

“Both values and both sides are valid,” she said.

Stokes emphasized the advisory council’s process for drafting recommendations is just as important as the recommendations themselves.

Stokes wants people to see beyond the report and understand the process, which has involved collaboration.

“What they’re really demonstrating is the ability to learn and understand the issues they’re not familiar with,” Stokes said. “It sets the example that conversation is possible.”

Outrage around hunting the species led several conservation groups and tribes to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after then Sec. of the Interior Ryan Zinke moved to delist Yellowstone-area grizzlies in 2017, claiming the population of bears had recovered.

Shortly after the delisting, Idaho and Wyoming began to prepare bear hunts. The states’ plans were thwarted in 2018 when a judge issued a restraining order to block the hunts.

Later that year, the Montana District Court judge sided with tribes and conservationists. The feds followed up with an appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court.

This July, a panel of appeals court judges ruled to restore ESA protections for the Yellowstone bears. However, they left room for Fish and Wildlife to pursue delisting in the future if the agency further examines the impact delisting could have on “remnant” populations of bears outside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The current population of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is anywhere between two and five times what it was in 1975, when the bear was given its protected status.

In 1975, there were an estimated 136 to 312 bears left in the ecosystem, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Now, there are over 700 bears in the ecosystem.

Federal agencies have long argued the population of bears has met the criteria for delisting. The federal government attempted to delist the species for the first time in 2007.

Tribes and conservationists sued over the move, and in 2009, a Montana District Court judge ruled to restore ESA protections for the bears. After the feds appealed, judges from the Ninth Circuit Court doubled down on the former decision, ruling to relist the bears in 2011.

Early this July, Sec. of the Interior David Bernhardt announced the Trump administration would be terminating a program to restore grizzlies to the North Cascades Ecosystem.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been putting together an environmental impact statement on the project, which would have involved transporting grizzlies from more populated areas.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration over the move.

At an Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting this July, Martha Williams, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, asked committee members how they felt about the court decisions involving the North Cascades.

“We’ve learned a lot, and we’re continuing to learn more and more about these bears and what we need to have in place to have a population that will be viable,” answered Jacque Buchanan, a deputy regional Forester for the U.S. Forest Service. “We can’t lose track. We can’t lose hope.”

“Both decisions just demonstrate the state of flux or the legal uncertainty and political uncertainty we are in,” Williams said. “It tells me we’re on the right track.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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