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Grizzly Council report nearly complete

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | August 2, 2020 1:00 AM

After nearly 10 months and more than a dozen public meetings, Montana’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council is on the cusp of solidifying recommendations about how to handle the state’s swelling grizzly bear population.

Those recommendations will address, among other things, the role of hunting and how best to tackle human-bear conflicts.

The 18-member council, appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock in April 2019, was charged with developing citizen recommendations for fundamental guidance and direction on key issues related to the long-term conservation and management of grizzlies in Montana, particularly issues that tend to garner significant social disagreement.

Over the years, agencies and organizations have focused on recovering bear populations in areas including the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems. While those efforts have been mostly successful, they have also created a host of challenges that officials say are now in-need of timely solutions.

“Bears are encroaching on human habitat like we have never experienced before as these populations continue to recover. With more bears and more people, conflicts are manifesting themselves in new ways,” said Patrick Holmes, Natural Resources Policy Advisor for the Governor’s Office. “We wanted this council to spend a great deal of time working on issues surrounding grizzlies that have proven to be more controversial over time and find durable solutions for how to move forward.”

By the end of August, the council is expected to produce a final report with actionable recommendations that provide clear guidance to the Governor’s Office and agencies including Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Fish and Wildlife Commission. Since being appointed, the council has reviewed the history of grizzly bear recovery and conservation in Montana, interagency management efforts, legal considerations, and more. Members have heard from FWP bear managers, tribal and federal managers, nonprofit organizations and others.

According to a recent press release from FWP, the public has submitted more than 16,000 comments on the council’s work thus far.

A draft of the report was released for public review about one week ago and the council will meet virtually on Wednesday to discuss public comment and make any needed changes to its final recommendations.

The current draft outlines guiding principles and then delves into different recommendations for grizzly management, including ones that address education and outreach, conflict prevention and bear distribution, relocation and connectivity. The document also discusses the role of hunting and the need for financial resources.

And based on the draft, August will be a busy month for the council members.

Although the council has reached consensus on portions of the report, about half of the 13-page draft is still written in red, meaning those concepts must be further discussed before concrete recommendations are made.

Holmes said there are a number of reasons for why the group has not reached an agreement on parts of the report.

He said as they currently stand, some of the recommendations are either too specific or too broad and require “further articulation.” But Holmes also said some of the issues may remain unresolved — something that is to be expected when a large group of Montanans from diverse backgrounds and with differing opinions come together to discuss grizzly bear management.

“It’s important to note there were over 150 applicants to be involved in this council’s efforts. The members we chose are opinion leaders within their organizations and among their colleagues and neighbors and we wanted to harness those perspectives,” Holmes said. “If we get to the end of August, and some of the points are still in red, we have asked them to articulate in the report why these were particularly challenging to resolve and what those different opinions are.”

MEMBERS REPRESENT every corner of the state.

Some have brought their science and research backgrounds to the table, others have roots in the logging and forest industry and a handful have spent the better part of their lives working in agriculture.

And the wide assortment of values are evident in the draft report.

To start, the recommendations for education and outreach seem fairly complete. Highlights include a large section that states the Governor’s Office and FWP should “fund and create a full-time bear education coordinator” to help implement various recommendations. Others state the need to “create consistency around public access to grizzly bear mortality data across recovery zones” and to “develop and maintain a statewide Bear Aware program.”

While educational components of the report appear to be more solidified, pieces related to conflict prevention and grizzly bear distribution, relocation and connectivity are still in the works, with well over half of these sections written in red.

On the conflict prevention front, some recommendations appear solidified, such creating consistency around food storage requirements and closely monitoring impacts to grizzly bears from road densities and other human activity on public and state lands. But the ideas and language for others related to recreational use on public lands, land-use planning with city and county planning boards and others, need further discussion. One that’s still in red is a recommendation that the Governor’s Office and 2021 Legislature “fully fund the Livestock Loss Board Trust Fund to allocate funding that would pay for conflict reduction tools and practices.”

As for the bear distribution, relocation and connectivity, the council recommends officials “encourage voluntary incentive-based conservation practices” in important wildlife areas, allow specialists to move bears to an appropriate established relocation site if bears are captured outside recovery zones, among other suggestions.

But the majority of recommendations in this section remain without consensus. These include other questions such as whether to “allow natural movement to new areas between all four identified recovery zones” or whether private landowners and local communities “should be prepared to have grizzlies and should be encouraged to prevent conflicts.”

Finally, the draft includes a large section looking at considerations around the role of hunting. The section is mostly made up of a pros-and-cons list, but offers some more concrete recommendations including one to “encourage the take of bears where the desired outcome is a lower bear density,” particularly where management challenges “are significant.”

HOLMES SAID many of the issues before the council “are uniquely difficult to grapple with” and recent discussions surrounding the possible delisting of bears have influenced and driven opinions on future grizzly management.

Should grizzlies in the Lower 48 — a federally protected species — be delisted, future management decisions would fall to the state. While some say it’s high time they are removed from the Endangered Species List, others are concerned recovery progress will be lost if those protections aren’t in place.

But regardless of where the council stands with their recommendations come the end of August, Holmes said he and others hope the public will be inspired to listen to one another more and respectively weigh the opinions of others when it comes to grizzly bear management in Montana.

“Part of the objective here is to focus on a collaborative approach. We have a long history of doing that here in Montana and it represents our state at its best in terms of working with our neighbors,” Holmes said. “There is actually a lot of common ground and agreement to be had.”

The group will meet virtually Aug. 5 from noon to 4 p.m. and the meeting will be streamed live at fwp.mt.gov/gbac. The council’s most recent draft of its final report can be found online at http://fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/management/grizzlyBear/gbac.html

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com