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Grizzly council talks funding, recreation and bears in Libby

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The first grizzly bear sighting in Yellowstone in 2020. NPS PHOTO

Working groups begin to consider recommendations

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR

LIBBY – Last summer, a woman living by a trail that meanders along the Tobacco River was startled by a scream. Afraid someone had been mauled by a bear, she called the police in nearby Eureka.

“Everybody’s worried [that] sooner or later somebody’s gonna get grabbed,” said State Sen. Mike Cuffe (R) as he described the incident. The response team included sheriff’s deputies, a Montana Highway Patrol trooper, U.S. Border Patrol, an agent with the U.S. Forest Service, and a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden.

What they found was concerning, but not in the way they expected: A black bear cub and a grizzly cub were in separate trees as their mothers prowled below.

“The two sows were squaring off and swiping at each other, and it was the two cubs that were screaming and crying,” Cuffe said, speaking in Libby during the fifth meeting of Gov. Steve Bullock’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council. During the Feb. 26-27 meeting, the 18-member citizen panel heard concerns from the greater Libby community.

“I believe there’s room for bears, I believe there’s room for humans, and we just need to find a way to coexist,” said Yaak Valley resident Ashely South during a public comment session. “Everything that is connected to bears is connected to this landscape and connected to the people within it. We can work together, and we can find ways to have preventative actions with bears. We want these recovery zones to be recovered.”

Conflict prevention and human safety are two of the five objectives Bullock tasked the council to address during its eight meetings, which began in October 2019 and will conclude this July. In August, the panel will submit recommendations to the governor and FWP on how the public would like the state of Montana to respond to and manage grizzly bears. The other objectives Bullock asked the council to address are ensuring a healthy, sustainable grizzly population; improving conflict response; and improving intergovernmental, interagency and tribal coordination. Bullock selected the council members to represent the public from a pool of more than 150 applicants and they come from communities scattered about western Montana and as far east as Big Timber.

It’s admittedly a daunting task, and council members have expressed concern about how quickly the August deadline will come. So far, the council has heard from experts on bear biology, land conservation efforts, and conflict prevention, among other topics.

During the Libby meeting, the council discussed how state and federal budgets relate to bears, and how the funding picture could change if the Yellowstone population is removed from the Endangered Species List. They also heard from Wayne Kaseworm of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and FWP bear manager Kim Annis on connectivity challenges in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem. Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation Director Rachel VandeVoort presented about the state’s recreation industry.

VandeVoort is working on programming that will promote recreation and natural resource education in public school curriculums, as well as update a 1999 inventory compiling research about how recreation impacts wildlife in the Rockies.

Since the council’s January meeting in Polson, small working groups have been meeting via conference call to discuss emerging ideas, challenges, opportunities and solutions. The working groups met in person on the second day of the meeting to brainstorm initial recommendations. These brainstorming sessions covered more than 80 ideas the council developed in January. Facilitator Heather Stokes with the University of Montana said these ideas will continue to develop and new ones may be added as the council continues to hear from experts and Montana communities during the March meetings in Browning and Choteau, the May meeting in Red Lodge, and the July meeting in Dillon.

Among the council’s initial ideas are finding ways to incentivize large-acre landowners that provide habitat to grizzly bears but carry the burden of living and working near bears; finding creative solutions for funding deficits; and improving conflict prevention efforts on private and public land.

“We’ve got to educate people about the bear, about bear habitat, how to live with them and also where they are,” said council member Greg Schock, a retired dairy farmer from St. Ignatius. “A lot of people don’t realize bears have been in their backyard for a long time until they have a conflict.”

A particular challenge the council is grappling with is how to promote bear-smart thinking in communities where bears are starting to expand, and how to educate those who live where bears already are.

“You can do everything possible to [secure attractants] on your property, but if your neighbor doesn’t do it, then the bear’s still going to come to your house looking for food,” council member Michele Dietrich of Hamilton said. “How do we support communities to start conversations about finding a way to become bear wise? Education is a huge part of that, and the funding is a huge part of that.”

The council closed its February meeting with plans to continue talking as smaller working groups, and report back in March. The council is accepting and reading individual comments online, as well as hearing public input during meetings.

The next Grizzly Bear Advisory Council meetings are scheduled for March 18 in Browning and March 19-20 in Choteau. 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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