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Grizzly council prepares for tough talks, adjusts to coronavirus

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By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL EDITOR

LIVINGSTON – Despite frenzied health and economic concerns as COVID-19 makes waves in Montana, the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council has reaffirmed its commitment to finding solutions for coexisting with grizzly bears.

The council was slated to meet in Browning on March 18 and in Choteau on March 19-20, but in light of the fluid coronavirus situation, the council elected to hold a video conference March 19-20 instead. The morning sessions were available to watch live via YouTube and on the council’s website.

The 18-member panel was selected by Gov. Steve Bullock last summer from a pool of more than 150 applicants and is tasked with providing recommendations to the governor and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on how the Montana public would like to see grizzly bears managed. Bullock has asked the council to submit recommendations by August after the course of eight meetings scheduled between October 2019 and July 2020.

“What we’re really dealing with is bears are moving beyond the areas where we have policies,” said FWP grizzly bear research biologist Cecily Costello. “We actually have to create some new policy regarding these areas in between. The reality of what is in between makes things a little more difficult … We’re running into more people.”

Costello added that the council is intended as a first step in the public engagement process for creating new policy about situations such as if, when or where a bear should be relocated and what are acceptable, effective ways of reducing conflicts.

During the March meeting, the council continued to discuss in smaller groups a list of more than 100 emerging ideas and began integrating smaller group work into a shared document the entire council can discuss. While the emerging ideas have not been announced publicly—they were generated through an informal brainstorm session and do not yet represent a consensus opinion from the council—the ideas are tangible, applicable suggestions related to human safety, healthy bear populations, conflict response and mitigation, information and education, as well as governmental, interagency and tribal coordination.

The council elected to start these conversations in smaller groups as a first step for tackling potentially controversial ideas and many members said they felt the groups were ready to have a full-group discussion.

Jonathan Bowler, a resident of Swan Valley near Condon, said having these hard conversations requires honesty and trust from every person on the council and now is the time to find common ground.

“We have a really great foundation and a personal respect and a value for each other’s ideas,” Bowler said. “We need to lean back on that now and understand that we’re going to have some dissenting ideas.”

Specifically, council members said they are ready to talk in upcoming meetings about where bears should be in Montana, whether it’s in every corner of the state or in identified locations in the western half; what, if any, role hunting might play in the future; and how to improve conflict response to livestock depredation.

“I think we’re really going to have to have that discussion and figure out where we all stand and then find middle ground and see where we can go from there,” said council member Trina Jo Bradley, a rancher in Valier.

To support these large-group discussions, the council has asked to hear from experts in Alaska and Canada about the opportunities and challenges around hunting, as well as George Edwards with the Montana Livestock Loss Board about rancher compensation when livestock is killed by grizzly bears. The panel has previously heard from state and federal biologists, as well as nonprofit staff about grizzly bear connectivity, distribution and the current efforts to support coexistence.

A significant portion of the meeting was dedicated to discussing the council’s process, the impacts of COVID-19, and how to make these larger group discussions accessible to the public.

The council was created as an initial public process, and in order to represent views from across Montana, the council determined to meet at various locations in the western half of the state and dedicate time to hear from each community. So far, the council has met in East Helena, Bozeman, Missoula, Polson and Libby and was scheduled to meet in Browning, Choteau, Red Lodge and Dillon.

With uncertainty around the full impacts of coronavirus, the group grappled with how best to proceed while continuing to engage the rest of the Montana public. Council members were eager to continue their work via teleconference over the next few weeks, but also noted the importance of face-to-face time and the ability to visit communities that are impacted by grizzly bears.

Multiple council members expressed interest in rescheduling meetings so that they can visit communities in person once issues surrounding the virus have been resolved. The council also requested the possibility of extending its deadline to submit recommendations.

Charlie Sperry, responsive management supervisor for FWP and one of nearly a dozen state and federal support staff aiding the council, thanked the council members for their continued dedication to grizzly bears despite trying times.

“We’ve known for a long time this is a special group,” Sperry said. “It just shows what an incredibly passionate group you are. From the bottom of my heart and everybody at FWP, thank you very much.”

While a final decision on rescheduling or setting a time for the next teleconference had not been made as of EBS press time on March 25, facilitators Heather Stokes and Shawn Johnson of the University of Montana were coordinating with council members about how to proceed and a new schedule will be forthcoming.

Council members said they will continue to accept online comments or questions from the public through a submission form online, and for now this will stand in place of public comment during meetings. During the March meeting, facilitator Stokes reported the council has received 300 comments.

Visit fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/management/grizzlyBear/gbac.html for more information about the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisor Council, to view meeting minutes and to submit individual comments.

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