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Montana’s grizzly bear council struggles to find shared vision

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Posted at 3:54 PM, May 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-27 17:54:21-04

MISSOULA — The members of Montana’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council are finding that language can be slippery, especially when trying to write short but accurate summaries.

On Tuesday, the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council met online using Zoom to try to finalize a short vision statement that will lead off the document containing their recommendations for managing Montana’s grizzly bears and the people that deal with bears.

The 18 members of the council represent the spectrum of stakeholders in Montana from conservation organizations to ranchers and loggers. Their differences in opinion were on display Tuesday as they spent an hour debating the wording in a four-paragraph vision statement.

“Words matter. And everyone has assumptions or interpretations of what words are being used,” said facilitator Heather Stokes. “Whatever words you put in writing can be interpreted a number of ways. So the more discussion you can have around it and the more clear you are, the better received this vision will be.”

Initially, most council members sounded like they approved of the first sentence, which has been hammered out over the past month. The sentence said there would be fully recovered grizzly populations in Montana’s four recovery areas, and “landscapes in-between that accommodate grizzly bear presence and facilitate connectivity.”

But council member Chuck Roady of F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. said he didn’t like the phrase “facilitate connectivity.” Roady brought up two recent challenges to logging projects in western Montana and northern Idaho because of bear habitat.

“These linkage corridors – we have to be really careful,” Roady said. “We want to facilitate bears increasing, but I can see that leading to restrictions, like in the ecosystems, and I can see it leading it to legal implications.”

Council member Michele Deterich said she didn’t want to remove the mention of connectivity because it’s important to the genetic health of the four populations to have bears moving between them. Otherwise, they become isolated and eventually inbred.

She argued that some areas in the connectivity regions needed protection. Deterich also wanted the vision statement to include wording about the need for conflict prevention.

Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologist Cecily Costello said the council could lose public support if it proposed more safeguards for bears in connectivity areas. Council member Nick Gevock proposed changing the wording to “allow for connectivity.”

Other council members said they weren’t comfortable with the first sentence if other ideas weren’t included in the rest of the vision.

Council member Cole Mannix, a Blackfoot Valley rancher, said he wanted some mention of managing grizzly bears to population objectives, which Mannix saw as a way of saying the bear population needed to be limited because the state has limited resources.

But some keyed on the term “population objective.”

For managing other species, FWP has developed plans that set population numbers for each hunting district. For example, if the elk population objective in a particular hunting district is 200, but there are more elk there, biologists offer many hunting tags to limit the population to 200.

That idea didn’t appeal to a number of council members. One pointed out that management decisions should be based on whether conflicts were popping up in an area. Another said the grizzly conservation plans are based on making sure there are enough females with cubs, not just a certain number of bears. Others asked if a discussion of limits could go somewhere else in the document.

Mannix said he didn’t want to define a number – he wanted to introduce the reality of limits into the vision statement, which other council members supported.

“(These other) phrases are squishy. They’re a bit general and broad – a vision statement has to be,” Mannix said. “But one thing we should not be squishy about is limited resources and setting and managing toward objectives.

Council member Caroline Byrd said everyone agreed that limits were necessary, so she agreed to work with Mannix to develop a better phrase than “population objective” to go in the vision statement.

“There’s a little bit of not hearing each other,” Byrd said. “We’re not talking about unlimited population growth, because that’s not how wildlife are managed. We are saying a lot of the same things but we’re not hearing that.”

The group is reviewing its first seven-page draft of recommendations on everything from hunting to project funding that are due to Gov. Steve Bullock by autumn. They’ll meet on June 8 to fine-tune those recommendations, possibly in person if a venue can be found.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.