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Grizzly management a public safety issue

by Warren Illi
| January 19, 2023 12:00 AM

Montana biologists have many challenges when managing many of the world class wildlife populations of elk, mountain sheep and other wildlife species found in Montana. Frequently those challenges are between hunters who want large huntable wildlife populations, landowners who see deer and elk as competing for a limited supply of natural food and environmentalists who see the killing of any wild critter as a sin against mother nature.

But biologists having the task of managing grizzly bears have another huge challenge, public safety. Excess populations of deer and elk can prove a nuisance for farmers and ranchers and are hazards on our highways. But having too many grizzly bears can and do threaten public safety due to their well-known short tempers and natural tendency to lash out and attack and kill anything they feel is a threat to their food or personal space. Grizzlies can and do attack and kill humans as well as domestic animals.

Last weekend I printed out the new 200 page Draft Montana Grizzly Bear Management Plan for my review. That draft plan is out for public review and comment. My interest in this plan is not just my personal interest in wildlife management, but also my interest in the safety of my family and my Flathead Valley neighbors.

I live just a mile or so north of Kalispell in a residential neighborhood of larger residential lots, between Whitefish Stage Road and the Whitefish River. This past fall our peaceful neighborhood was invaded by a bear. Luckily for me and my neighbors the bear was a black bear, which tend to be a lot less aggressive than their larger and more mean-spirited cousins, grizzlies. Our neighborhood is typical of a dozens of similar residential neighborhoods in the Flathead Valley. The nature of myself and my neighbors is to have lots of fruit trees. Many of us also have vegetable gardens. We also tend to love wildlife and have lots of bird feeders that attract loved wildlife such as song birds. But fruit trees, vegetable gardens and bird feeders also are bear attractants.

So, what is developing or perhaps more properly termed an existing problem, is the invasion of grizzlies and other dangerous wildlife into the Flathead Valley and similar rural Western Montana communities. Grizzly bear management is more complex because they are listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. So grizzly bear management is not totally in the control of local Montana citizens, but all Americans including those living on the 40th floor of a high-rise apartment complex in New York City or San Francisco.

This human safety and grizzly bear abundance management issue is broadly recognized in the draft grizzly management plan. When the original grizzly management plans were developed in the early 1980s, most of the grizzly bears in Montana were found in what is termed the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, NCD, which is essentially Glacier National Park and the adjacent Bob Marshall wilderness complex. These wild remote areas are mostly all federal lands with very little private land ownership and human residents. To the south, a similar large area of public land, with few human residents, is known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). Both of these areas were viewed as the last secure grizzly bear habitat in the lower 48 states. A smaller grizzly ecosystem, the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem (CYE) area is located generally west of the Flathead area on the Kootenai National Forest.

When the original grizzly bear management plan was developed in the 1980s, the goal was to have a sustainable grizzly population of several hundred grizzly bears in the NCD ecosystem. That bear number goal has now been surpassed with a current estimate of about a thousand bears. But biologists have developed a new wrinkle in bear management referred to genetic interchange or connectivity. In order for the GYE ecosystem bears to survive in the long run, over hundreds of years, biologists feel there must be a genetic transfer or interchange with other grizzly bears. The only other nearby grizzlies are in the NCD. So even though the NCD ecosystem has probably reached its maximum sustainable grizzly population, bear numbers will be allowed to continue to expand in order for NCD grizzlies to expand out south and west to bring genetic linkage to the GYE grizzles, west to the CYE and southwest to the Bitterroot Mountains where biologists want to re-establish a new grizzly ecosystem.

That means large number of grizzlies will be allowed to expand west, into the Flathead Valley with its current 108,000 residents and millions of annual recreation visitors. So, there seems to be an almost unavoidable conflict between people, Flathead Valley communities and grizzlies. Bears will die and some people will be injured and probably die.

Can you imagine the public reaction if a 6-year-old kid dashes out the backdoor of his home to play after dinner, then bumps into a grizzly feeding under his dad’s apple tree? This is not just a wildlife management problem and issue, but a public safety issue, with no easy solutions.

So go to The FWP website and take a look at the draft grizzly management plan. This is your chance to influence grizzly management. I can tell you I don’t want dangerous wild animals in my Flathead back yard. Nor do I want to turn my back yard into a fortified area to discourage use by dangerous wild animals. Do you want dangerous wild animals in your backyard?

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