Grizzly in Yellowstone

A grizzly bear is shown near Tower Junction in Yellowstone National Park on April 19, 2019.

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A new range rider is working to prevent grizzly bears from preying upon livestock in the Gravelly Range in response to increasing bear activity.

“We’re trying to protect livestock, and we’re trying to keep bears out of trouble,” said John Steuber, state director for U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services.

Range riders travel on horseback, tracking predators and monitoring livestock in areas with high bear and wolf activity. Working closely with ranchers, they identify at-risk livestock and reduce the chance of conflict by providing a human presence. Madison County’s new range rider started work in late May, Steuber said.

Grizzly bear conflicts in the Gravelly Range are some of the highest in the state, Steuber said. Livestock kills have increased as grizzly bear populations expand.

Kevin Frey, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear biologist, said the increase in grizzly bear population density and range has to do with the ongoing recovery program for the species.

Grizzlies in the Lower 48 have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1975, when the population in Yellowstone was estimated at fewer than 150. Biologists now estimate that there are about 700 bears in the Yellowstone region, and their range has been expanding.

According to data from the Department of Livestock, grizzly bears killed 30 cattle in Madison County in 2018, up from 18 in 2017.

Steuber said the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) created the new position with funding from Congress. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is contributing additional funding, he said.

Another range rider stationed in Kootenai National Forest is continuing work for a third year, Steuber said. Ranchers have continued to support the program, which, in Steuber’s eyes, is an indication of its success.

Frey said range riders are effective at preventing wolves from attacking livestock, but less effective at preventing grizzly bear kills. Bears are harder to intimidate, he said.

However, Frey said range riders are great for keeping track of livestock kills and identifying kills quickly, which means ranchers are more likely to be reimbursed for their losses.

To be reimbursed, ranchers have to prove the individual animal was killed by a grizzly bear or wolf. So far ranchers have been paid around $5,500 for livestock kills in 2020. Ranchers were given just under $60,000 for kills in 2019.

“Working together, we are protecting agriculture and livelihoods, and at the same time, conserving valuable wildlife resources,” Kevin Shea, administrator for USDA APHIS, said in a news release announcing the new range rider.

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

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