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Grizzly panel reaches half-way point

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Begins considering recommendations

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR

POLSON – Michele Dieterich and Trina Jo Bradley met for the very first time in October 2019 during the first gathering of the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council. Dieterich, an educator from Hamilton, and Bradley, a cattle rancher in Valier, alongside 16 fellow Montanans have since spent nine full days listening and learning from each other, with their latest meeting marking the half-way point in a process designed to create a long-term vision for Montana’s grizzly bears.

The 18-member panel represents a diverse array of perspectives and backgrounds but shares in the Montana value of community—evident through their thoughtful conversations as the panel started brainstorming specific regulations and actions they’d like to see adopted through Montana’s state legislature and wildlife department.

The panel was selected from more than 150 applicants to represent the Montana public in developing recommendations for the management of Montana’s grizzly bears. While initial meetings in October, November and December 2019 focused on gathering facts about grizzly bears and current conservation strategies—the panel heard from bear biologists, management specialists, watershed groups and conservation organizations—January’s Polson meeting was a transition point where the council began talking specifics.

During a breakout session the council divided into smaller groups to discuss various hypothetical grizzly bear conflict scenarios as a mode to generate thoughts on how state managers could respond. Dieterich and Bradley were among one group considering a scenario in which a bear kills a cow in Martinsdale 90 miles northeast of Bozeman and outside of what is recognized as existing grizzly bear range.

While Bradley voiced support for lethally removing the hypothetical bear in order to improve trust and social tolerance with the theoretical rancher, Dieterich said she’d rather see relocation and giving the bear another chance. Even though there was not a consensus decision either way, and the council made it clear they were not in support of one management action over another, the conversation proved a discussion rather than an argument.

“This is not ‘should we remove the bear’ or ‘should we relocate the bear,’ the takeaway is really what tools are missing here for the bear managers,” Dieterich said, noting that funding is often allocated to areas where bears already are rather than places they occasionally show up, even though conflicts can occur in both places.

“We have a funding issue because everyone should be working on creating areas where we’re not going to have problems if at all possible,” Dieterich added. “There has to be flexibility for the bear managers, we can’t say, ‘you have to do it this way’ because I think every situation is different.”

As the group discussed their rationales, a moment passed that illustrated the council’s development of trust. Bradley took the microphone and described the vulnerability that comes with expressing an opinion and that council members are working hard to create a safe place where opinions can be expressed.

“I feel like that is part of our struggle here as the state of Montana—there’s a disconnect,” Bradley said. “I love Michele, she’s a sweet lady, but we don’t come from the same background and we may not agree on things.”

Speaking directly to Dieterich, Bradley added, “I’m proud of you for sticking to your guns.”

The scenario exercise broadened the conversation and was a way of looking closer at some of the ideas council members compiled between the December and January meetings and discussed in a round-table format on the first day in Polson.

These emerging ideas included thoughts about generating additional funding for conflict prevention, how to deal with a bear that’s causing harm and how to develop increased social tolerance in bear country, among other topics.

Several members of the public were critical of the process so far, fearing the council was moving too quickly and shouldn’t be drafting recommendations just yet.

“I have a real problem with bringing forth recommendations and the urging toward that at this particular point,” said Sierra Club Montana Chapter member Claudia Narcisco, noting that the council still has more to learn—subjects slated for future meetings include a deep dive into the role of recreation and hunting—which means recommendations drafted today might need to be changed after those meetings.

However, council members repeatedly expressed a desire to start talking specifics so that they can discuss and draft thoughtful suggestions over the course of the next six months when recommendations come due to the Governor in August.

“I really commend the council for putting their ideas on paper and for them being open and willing to share with the public at this stage, which is a really vulnerable point,” facilitator Heather Stokes of the University of Montana said in response. “I really want to make sure that everyone in this room understands that these are just thoughts and ideas at this point … It’s really possible at the next meeting that that document could look completely different.”

“We’re trying to be thoughtful about how we engage the public,” Stokes added. In addition to offering a formal public comment period at the end of each day, Stokes and co-facilitator Shawn Johnson frequently invite the public to weigh in or engage in the same activities as the council.

At one point, a woman from the public who introduced herself as an elder tribal member, offered words of encouragement to the panel: “I think of myself as a person who’s danced with bears all my life,” she said. “There was a time, so far back, when the animals and the people could talk to each other. And I’m so happy to see you doing this talking.”

“At this time, I think you cannot have enough conversation. I think that it’s wonderful that you’re going ahead and every person, from the Governor’s executive all the way down to each one of us, is so important,” she added. “If I could make one recommendation, it would be to keep talking to each other, keep getting these ideas going. I’m really happy that I could be here today.”

On the second day of the meeting, the council heard from wildlife officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife Services and the U.S. Forest Service about relocation protocols and what’s going on in the Bitterroot Ecosystem where there is no longer an established population of grizzly bears.

“If you care about the grizzly bear as a species and about the possibility of recovering the bear … you need permission for that bear to live there,” said FWP Region 2 wildlife manager Mike Thompson, who oversees the Montana portion of the Bitterroot. “What we bump up against is the societal permission to have bears.”

“What we need at this point … is some way to get permission from Montanans and have acceptance through compromised mutual understanding that we can manage this,” he said. “We’re going to have grizzly bears here, what’s that look like?”

The council’s next meeting is scheduled Feb. 26-27 in the Ponderosa Room at the City Building in Libby. Meetings are open to the public and public involvement is solicited throughout both days. Public comment is also accepted online.

Visit fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/management/grizzlyBear/gbac.html for more information about the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisor Council and to submit public comment.

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