griz

A Yellowstone grizzly bear lays on a buried carcass in March after emerging from hibernation. Yellowstone National Park reported the first grizzly bear sighting of 2021 on Saturday.

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Trina Jo Bradley knows what it means to run a ranch in grizzly bear country.

She lives along the Rocky Mountain Front, where being on a landscape with the apex predators feels like a thorn in her side that she can’t remove.

Bradley’s daughter isn’t allowed to play outside by herself because a grizzly bear could wander into the yard at any time. There’s a six foot electric fence in their yard to protect her daughter’s 4-H animals. Calving pastures that Bradley’s father-in-law used for decades can’t be used because bears might break in.

“We have to fence the creek pastures in pairs so one of us can hold the fencing supplies and one of us can hold the gun,” Bradley said. “We have to be on guard and vigilant every second.”

Bradley is the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Front Ranchlands Group. She has long supported removing grizzly bears from the Endangered Species list.

“Those advocating for the recovery of the species should be allowed to celebrate the success of their conservation efforts, and delisting grizzlies would be a great start,” she said.

Putting the bears under state management rather than federal would mean better management of problem bears that prey on livestock, ruin crops and tear open grain bins, according to Bradley. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks knows how to manage the species and will continue to ensure that grizzlies remain on the landscape, she said.

The danger of living in grizzly country became apparent earlier this year.

On April 15, 40-year-old Carl Mock was mauled by a grizzly bear while fishing near West Yellowstone. He later died in an Idaho hospital.

Wildlife investigators shot and killed bear that authorities believed responsible for the attack it charged the group of seven. Officials found a moose carcass near the site of the attack. They believe the bear was defending it.

Mock worked as a guide for Backcountry Adventures — a West Yellowstone business that gives snowcoach and snowmobile tours of Yellowstone National Park. He had a passion for outdoors, hiking, fishing, photography, and was a beloved guide to countless visitors in Yellowstone, wrote friends who set up a GoFundMe page for him. He was a loyal friend, hard-working and had an infectious smile, they wrote.

Alan Redfield, a Paradise Valley rancher, said in a video shared by Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines that the West Yellowstone attack got to him. Recently, he was wandering up a creek when he came across a moose carcass.

“I have to worry about safety for myself. I have to worry about the safety of my family. We all take our turn going and checking cattle,” he said. “It is dangerous... It’s always in the back of your mind now.”

Congressional efforts to remove endangered species protections from grizzly bears have ramped up this spring while bills targeting predators pile up in the Montana Legislature.

At the federal level, Republican senators from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are pursuing delisting of the Yellowstone grizzlies through legislation. At the state level, lawmakers pushed bills that experts say could lead to more bear mortalities.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March recommended no change to the species’ “threatened” status.

While some people want Montana to take on management of grizzly bear populations, others think bills introduced during the Montana Legislature targeting bears and other predators show Montana isn’t prepared to handle management of the species.

Grizzly and cub

TOP: A grizzly sow and her yearling cub roam near Roaring Mountain in Yellowstone on April 28, 2017. ABOVE: Yellowstone National Park announced Tuesday that it had recorded its first grizzly bear sighting of the year.

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Grizzly bears once numbered around 50,000 throughout 18 western states, according to estimates by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the late 1800s, government-sponsored bounty programs and habitat loss led to significant population losses.

By the time the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, there were between 700 and 800 bears in the lower 48 states. The only populations left were isolated in five areas scattered across Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington.

FWS designated six areas as grizzly bear recovery zones in 1993. Two of those areas — the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems — have met the recovery standards set by the agency. But many grizzly advocates believe those standards are outdated.

Estimates indicate that a little fewer than 1,100 bears roam the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in and around Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. Just under 740 bears are believed to inhabit the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in and around Yellowstone National Park.

As bear numbers in these regions are increasing, their ranges are expanding. Often the animals end up on private land, where conflicts with humans and livestock arise.

Despite frequent delisting attempts, all grizzly populations in the Lower 48 have retained federal protections.

In blocking the most recent attempt to delist the Yellowstone bears, a federal court ruled in 2018 that the Fish and Wildlife Service still needs to determine whether delisting the Yellowstone population would threaten other isolated populations of grizzlies. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision last July.

The Fish and Wildlife Service in March released a 5-year status review on grizzly bears in the Lower 48. The agency recommended no change to the species’ threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.

The agency noted that populations in the Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have reached recovery criteria. But it also noted that “there is enough future uncertainty associated with conservation efforts, such that the grizzly bear in the lower-48 States remains likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all of its range.”

About a week before the status review was released, Daines co-sponsored the Grizzly Bear State Management Act of 2021 along with other Republican senators from Wyoming and Idaho. The bill would delist grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

“Merely recognizing the biologic recovery of the grizzly bear is not enough,” Daines said in a statement on the federal government’s status review. “The Biden Administration should follow through on their commitment to follow the science and act upon their career scientists’ own findings by moving forward immediately to delist the grizzly bear in Montana and return species management back to the state.”

On April 22, Daines, Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale and the delegations of Idaho and Wyoming sent a letter to Interior Department Secretary Debra Haaland urging a delisting of the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone grizzly populations.

“We are hopeful that future management of the bear will follow the science, honor the commitment and resources invested by Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho over the past five decades, and not be subject to political whims,” the lawmakers wrote.

In 2019, former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock picked 18 Montanans with diverse backgrounds to serve on a citizen-led Grizzly Bear Advisory Council. Bradley was on the council.

Members drafted recommendations for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in preparation for future delisting. Recommendations were to fully fund conflict prevention initiatives and programs compensating ranchers for livestock losses to grizzlies. There were strategies for helping isolated populations connect and guidelines for establishing a hunt.

Chris Servheen, who served for 35 years as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s national grizzly bear recovery coordinator, said he thinks the work of the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council was how management should happen here.

“They listened to all the experts and they came up with really a good set of recommendations that were sound and representative of the views of a wide range of Montanans,” he said.

Servheen now thinks Montana is backsliding into the anti-predator hysteria of the past.

Grizzly bear

Yellowstone National Park announced in March that it had recorded its first grizzly bear sighting of 2021. (Jim Peaco/NPS)

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Servheen was among more than 50 retired wildlife biologists and professionals who signed a letter urging the Montana Legislature and Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte to oppose six bills impacting wolves, bears and the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

He said many of the bills were not based on facts, and the result is going to be disastrous for grizzly bear recovery. Servheen expects the legislation will result in more grizzly deaths, which could preclude delisting.

Senate Bills 98 and 337 are among the bills that concerned Servheen.

SB 98, sponsored by Sen. Bruce Gillespie, R-Ethridge, addresses the growing number of bear-human conflicts on the landscape. It says situations where grizzly bears are “threatening to kill a person or livestock” are an absolute defense in which someone can legally kill a bear. The bill passed the Legislature and awaits a decision from the governor.

Hearings on SB 98 this legislative session were packed with testimony from people who’ve experienced bear encounters, in large part on the Rocky Mountain Front. Supporters said people need to be able to defend themselves and their livestock, especially as more bears roam onto private land.

Servheen said the definition of the word “threatening” is loose, and there’s no real way to prove what it means in conflict situations. He added that killing bears threatening people or livestock is still illegal under federal law, so people who do it could face federal charges.

“Some people might think that a grizzly bear in the same pasture as livestock is threatening their livestock, so they kill them,” he said. “The end result will be a lot of dead bears, and those people will still be subject to federal prosecution.”

Bradley said that as a cattle producer, supporting SB 98 is a no-brainer. She would like the to have the freedom to stop a grizzly before it attacks her livestock.

“The thing people don’t realize — and it’s the most important thing — this bill doesn’t go into effect until after grizzly bears are delisted,” she said. “Why not at least let all producers in Montana know that the governor and the Legislature see our struggle and want to help?”

SB 337, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, a R-Malta, would bar Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks from relocating grizzlies to sites that haven’t first been approved by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission. In addition, the department would be prohibited from relocating bears that have been in conflicts outside of recovery zones. The governor has signed the bill into law.

FWP backed the bill during the Legislature. Quentin Kujala, chief of staff for FWP, said during a bill hearing that requiring that the commission approve bear release sites would make identification of those sites more inclusive and transparent. Restricting the department from moving bears involved in conflicts outside of recovery zones would help provide people with certainty over the department’s role in dealing with conflict situations.

SB 337 wouldn’t diminish the state’s commitment to the delisting of the bears or their viability as an iconic species in Montana, Kujala said.

Bradley said it’s important for the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to be able to consult with those who will be affected by the relocation of grizzly bears anywhere in Montana. The bill puts some of the responsibility and liability back on the Fish and Wildlife Service for decisions to move grizzlies around the state, she said.

Servheen said SB 337 goes against 40 years of the state of Montana participating in grizzly bear recovery efforts. At least 20% of grizzlies spend some time outside of recovery zones, and the bill makes it so any of those bears captured outside the zones can’t be relocated by FWP, he said.

Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said he and others in conservation were stunned that FWP supported SB 337. He called it a major reversal in decades of leadership by the department.

He has long stood up for returning management of recovered grizzly bear populations back to Montana. However — because of SB 337, several other bills introduced during the Legislature and the actions of FWP — he has changed his position.

“Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystem populations have met the recovery goals. And that’s a tremendous conservation success story that took decades of hard work by all Montanans that we should be proud of,” he said. “But unfortunately now I just think we’ve shown that we are completely unsuited to manage grizzly bears going into the future.”

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

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