MISSOULA — The Bitterroot Ecosystem subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee had a full agenda for its spring meeting, but surprisingly, much of it was closed to the public.
The Bitterroot Ecosystem committee met on Zoom for most of Friday, but the public was allowed to listen to only about an hour of summaries from the various federal and state agencies, such as national forests and wildlife departments.
However, the morning was full of items that could have been of interest to the public. The agenda listed “Outfitter Conversations on the Nez Perce Clearwater National Forest,” “Exploring the Human Dimension equation in grizzly conservation in Idaho,” a science subcommittee report, and “Discussion on the Proposal for Change to the IGBC,” although there were no details on what that change might be.
After reporting on many IGBC committee meetings over the years, the Missoula Current questioned the unusual meeting closure. JJ Teare, supervisor of the Clearwater Region of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, currently chairs the Bitterroot subcommittee. So the Missoula Current called Idaho Fish and Game representative Jen Bruns on Thursday and Friday morning requesting access to the morning discussions, but the calls weren’t returned.
Montana has strong open-meeting laws, but Idaho also has open-meeting laws based on the idea that “The public’s business ought to be done in public,” according to Idaho Attorney General Lawrence G. Wasden.
According to the Idaho Open Meeting manual, the only meetings that can be closed to the public are executive sessions where members discuss personnel matters or financial issues such as the acquisition of real property. The items listed on the Bitterroot subcommittee agenda don’t meet those standards.
When asked why the meeting had been closed to the public, Teare said he wanted to allow the agency members to discuss issues among themselves before going out to the public. He said notes of the meeting would be made available on the IGBC website.
“(There’s) nothing hiding. But it’s hard to get too many members, especially virtually, on the whole agenda and on a whole conversation. We kinda need to dig down to some details at times when you work at the policy level,” Teare said.
According to the Idaho Open Meeting manual, meetings conducted by electronic means are not exempt from open meeting laws. During the public portion of the Bitterroot meeting, only 22 people were on the Zoom call, with only about a handful being members of the public.
Of the five grizzly bear recovery areas, the Bitterroot is a little more contentious for a few reasons. So shutting out the public only raises questions.
Some residents of Idaho and the Bitterroot have strongly opposed transplanting bears into the area, so recovery is occurring through migration. Currently, no resident bears have been documented in the Bitterroot, although biologists suspect the bears are there.
Last year, grizzly bears were sighted near Lolo and in the Miller Creek area. One bear has repeatedly crossed Interstate 90 west of Missoula moving between the Flathead and the Bitterroot Mountains.
During what little of Friday’s meeting the public was allowed to see, Chuck Mark, Salmon-Challis National Forest supervisor, said that a few weeks ago, biologists confirmed the Forest’s first grizzly bear sighting west of the Continental Divide Trail along the Montana-Idaho border southwest of Dillon. That’s 35 miles southeast of where the US Fish and Wildlife Service had previously documented bears. A hunter turned in a video from last June showing the grizzly bear and a black bear on a bear-baiting site.
“It’s certainly exciting news in this part of the woods,” Mark said. “It just validates what we have suspected for the last three or four or five years – we’ve got grizzly bears moving back and forth across the Continental Divide between Montana and Idaho. I think that’s important.”
Bear-baiting has been another bone of contention. Idaho allows black bear hunters to create bait sites and then shoot when a bear approaches. Grizzly bear advocates have argued that the practice endangers grizzly bears. The sighting on the Salmon-Challis appears to support that. Brus said Idaho Fish and Game is trying to educate bear hunters on the difference between species.
In 2019, wildlife advocates sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Forest Service for allowing bear-baiting to continue in grizzly territory on federal land in Idaho and Wyoming because 10 grizzly bears have died as a result in the past 20 years.
Nez Perce biologist Kerey Barnowe-Meyer asked about the status lawsuit. Teare said the lawsuit was ongoing and he couldn’t comment because Idaho Fish and Game was intervening on behalf of the federal government.
The Nez Perce Clearwater, Salmon-Challis, Bitterroot and Lolo national forests are all in the process of rewriting their forest plans. Depending on the outcome of a Flathead National Forest lawsuit, they may have to adjust their habitat protections for grizzly bears.