MISSOULA — The U.S. Department of the Interior announced the federal government would play more of an active role in controlling grizzly bears on the Rocky Mountain Front.
In letters to Montana’s Republican congressmen, Interior Sec. David Bernhardt said because grizzly bear management is a complex process involving numberous agencies and regulations, conflict response can sometimes be delayed, which frustrates those who have to live with bears.
“Under my new direction, (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) will play a more conclusive role when deciding how to handle problem bears and will enter into a contract with the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services to help implement those decisions,” Bernhardt wrote in the March 6 letter.
At Bernhardt’s direction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first met in Helena on Nov. 26 with other federal and tribal wildlife agencies and the state wildlife agencies of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to rehash grizzly bear management in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems. The same agencies have participated in the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meetings for decades.
Other meetings followed that prompted Bernhardt to take a more top-down approach, according to his letter.
While Bernhardt’s letter included few details, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks spokesman Greg Lemon said Wildlife Services would receive an additional $250,000 to, among other things, hire two additional employees to deal with livestock depredation along the Northern Rocky Mountain Front, where grizzly bears have begun moving out from the mountains of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem onto the eastern plains. All grizzly bears are still listed as threatened, even though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried to delist the Greater Yellowstone population.
There was also a push at the meetings to see whether there were more management options under the Endangered Species Act to deal with grizzly bears, Lemon said. But Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear managers have said they have enough tools but are severely undermanned, which limits how rapidly they can respond to conflict calls.
“Across bear country where we have depredation events, we rely on (Wildlife Services). Their role is to assess the cause of the depredation, and we often work together on how to address it. So in our mind, building more capacity with Wildlife Services is a definite positive,” Lemon said. “I don’t know how they’re going to spend that money or what it’s going to look like on the ground. But we don’t have any concern about being able to make it work for the benefit of the producers who are out there dealing with grizzly bear conflict.”
Last year, the Montana Woolgrowers Association was worried about federal budget cuts diminishing the ability of Wildlife Services to respond to depredation cases and advocated for more funding.
In 2019, grizzly bears killed 45 cattle, 44 sheep, 4 pigs or llamas and one horse in seven counties east of the Rocky Mountain Front, according to Montana Livestock Loss Board numbers. Wildlife Service agents must confirm that a wild predator killed an agricultural animal before ranchers are reimbursed by the board.
Wildlife Services agents also kill other wildlife, such as wolves, bears, coyotes, badgers, cougars and foxes if requested by landowners. In 2018, agents killed 1.5 million wild animals.
That’s the reputation that has bear advocates worried with Bernhardt’s intentions. Mike Bader, Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force consultant, said putting more bear management in the hands of Wildlife Services is “a crude approach to problem solving.”
“This provides additional capacity to do what? Respond to conflicts and work to avoid them? Or respond to conflicts and kill bears? That’s a huge difference. Wildlife Services doesn’t manage wildlife – they kill wildlife,” Bader said. “What I’m getting from the politics of all this is, Bernhardt is saying, ‘Since we haven’t been able to delist the grizzly bears yet, we’re looking for ways to get around the ax so we can kill more bears.’”
Lemon said FWP bear biologists work with Wildlife Services and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide what to do after a depredation – killing the bear isn’t always the end result.
“A lot of things go into that decision: the history of the bear, the egregiousness of the depredation, the sex of the bear. It’s hard to say ‘do the same thing with every bear.’ But typically, the decisions tend to happen quickly and the flexibility under the rules is there,” Lemon said.
In his letter, Bernhardt said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would reissue guidance on what the public could do to haze grizzly bears, including using paintballs, noise-making projectiles and visual deterrents.
Fish, Wildlife & Parks already allows landowners to haze bears, Lemon said, but prefers to work with individual landowners on which method to use, because each bear reacts differently.
“We don’t know what (the Fish and Wildlife Service) is going to come out with,” Lemon said. “The reason we don’t have a list on our website is it’s case-specific and it’s best to have a bear specialist working with the landowner.”
Of a little more concern is Bernhardt’s comment that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks should dedicate more federal Pittman-Robertson money to the “removal or control” of grizzly bears. The federal Pittman-Robertson Act collects money from gun and ammunition sales to provide matching grants to wildlife agencies nationwide.
“I encourage your State to consider these facts when prioritizing the expenditure of these funds,” Bernhardt wrote.
But funneling more money toward grizzly bear management means other Montana wildlife and law enforcement could suffer. Money from the Pittman-Robertson Act and the Dingle-Johnson Act, another federal grant program, accounts for almost 20% of FWP’s annual budget and is mainly used for projects that maintain and restore wildlife populations and habitat across the state. Plus in 2017, the Montana Legislature required FWP to dip into its limited federal grant money to augment a certain percentage of wardens’ salaries.
Last year, FWP received more than $15 million from Pittman-Robertson, but only because it had money to match the grants. FWP can request up to $3 in federal funding for every $1 of state money.
Also, Bernhardt’s actions only deal with grizzly bears on the Rocky Mountain Front and nowhere else, Lemon said.
That’s why it’s important for Gov. Steve Bullock’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council to finish its recommendations for how Montana should manage grizzly bears in areas outside of the four recovery areas.
“Everywhere bears are expanding, they’re expanding into human populations. In Montana, you have a social landscape that represents a lot of different values on grizzly bears. To some, they’re a majestic symbol of the wild and what Montana is, and to others, they’re a threat to their livelihood. All of those have to be considered in grizzly bear management,” Lemon said. “I don’t think this decision to put $250,000 into expanding Wildlife Services capacity does anything to change that. I think the advisory council will welcome the increased capacity, too.
But it doesn’t address how do we prepare for grizzly bears that are moving toward the Big Hole, or the Bitterroot or the Sapphires? There are pressing needs on the Front, but there are also needs in the Blackfoot or the Beartooth front.”