Ranchers learned about many different resources for raising cattle and sheep in grizzly country at the Jan. 8 “Ranching with Grizzlies” conference in Choteau, but several lamented the loss of their way of life and said grizzlies are going to kill rural people if state and federal policies are not changed.
“We have got enough, we have got enough,” rancher Mark Hitchcock said, adding that he has been to lots of grizzly bear meetings since the federal government reintroduced bears along the Rocky Mountain Front in the early 1980s.
Since then, he said, the bear population has steadily increased and now bears are ranging far east of the old recovery line, U.S. Highway 89
Hitchcock said he does not want to be compensated by anyone for cattle grizzlies have killed; he wants to be able to protect his livestock from grizzlies.
“When a child gets killed, we’ll fix the damn problem,” he said.
Book St. Goddard, vice president of the Blackfeet Nation Stock Growers Association, said he would like to see ranchers file a lawsuit against the federal government, seeking recompense for livestock lost to grizzlies and wolves and forcing the federal government to declare the grizzly population recovered and to take it off the Endangered Species List as a threatened species.
“When you have a 500-head cattle operation, electric fencing isn’t the answer,” he said.
Kathy Kipp said the government needs to start protecting the people who live on the land. She and her husband, Joe, ranch north of Browning, and the growing grizzly bear population has changed their way of life.
“It’s cool to see the bears, but living with the bears is another matter,” she said.
She said she used to walk through the meadow checking on cows. Now she is afraid to do that. She can’t ride her horse through the brush. She’s had breeding grizzlies in her yard.
Despite the expressions of frustration, however, BNSGA member Trina Jo Bradley, whose family ranches north of Dupuyer, said the conference was designed to give farmers, ranchers and other rural residents some resources to call when grizzly bears start showing up in their corrals, yards, gardens and grain fields.
The grizzly bear in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem is not going to be delisted until a lengthy court battle plays out, she said, and in the meantime, farmers and ranchers have to be able minimize the chances that they will lose stock or their own lives while working on their farms and ranches.
More than 60 people attended the daylong conference, sponsored by the BNSGA, made up of members who run cattle and/or sheep on the Blackfeet Reservation in northcentral Montana, and by several other nonprofit agencies.
The meeting also drew a number of agency personnel and local politicians, including Rep. Llew Jones of Conrad, Rep. Ross Fitzgerald of Fairfield and Sen. Butch Gillespie of Kevin, along with a field representative for U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.
•Nonprofit representatives: Gary Burnett with the Heart of the Rockies Initiative, Alex Few with the Western Landowners Alliance, Jeff Bectell with the Waterton Biosphere, and Russ Talmo with Defenders of Wildlife.
•State government officials: George Edwards, the executive director of the Montana Livestock Loss Board, and Sara Sylte with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; and federal employees Hilary Cooley with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Mike Hoggan with the USDA’s Wildlife Services.
•Steve Skelton of rural Bynum, who spoke on his business, Blackleaf Guardians, that raises guard dogs to protect livestock from predators including eagles, coyotes, grizzlies, cougars and wolves.
The guest speakers gave information on how to access cost-shares for installing electric fences around gardens, bee yards, bedding grounds, corrals and ranch yards. They also talked about how to contact the USDA’s Wildlife Services personnel to respond to grizzly conflicts with humans, how to use bear spray, how to run livestock guard dogs and how to file for compensation with the state’s Livestock Loss Board.
Speakers with government agencies and nonprofits had a whole table filled with helpful literature on preventing bear-human and bear-livestock conflicts and giving people phone numbers and websites for getting more information.
Bradley and Kristen Kipp, both members of the BNSGA and the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council, said they wanted people to have resources to use in six weeks when grizzlies start emerging from their winter dens.
Kristen Kipp said, “We live in the heart of grizzly country, and we have a lot of problems. Finding resources for landowners and ranchers was kind of a difficult task.” Last year, she said, 15% of the 4-H kids raising pigs lost their animals to grizzly kills.
She said their goal for the conference was to bring farmers and ranchers together, to review resources and not to sit around and complain but to try to come up with ways to improve the current situation.
Kipp’s father, Joe, the president of the BNSGA, welcomed all those who came and said working in grizzly country continues to be difficult for farmers and ranchers. He said he was missing 6% of his calf crop at shipping time and no one compensates ranchers for missing livestock. “We have to eat that,” he said.
St. Goddard agreed, saying he was missing 31 calves at shipping time last fall. “It starts hitting your pocket book,” he said.
Burnett, Few and Bectell all spoke about the role their nonprofit agencies play in trying to keep production agriculture in business, knowing how critical private lands are to wildlife habitat. All three said their organizations offer tools that can help reduce conflicts and minimize losses, and they encouraged farmers and ranchers to reach out to them.
Few said she was encouraged at the number of people attending the meeting. “We really believe by bringing together people in meetings like this, we are able to create a more connected landscape and tell the positive value working landscapes have in the West,” she said.
Mike Hoggan, a long-time investigator with the USDA Wildlife Services in Valier, explained to those attending what services he provides and how to access those services.
He said that his agency is the one that determines how an animal died, based on a necropsy. His agencies reports are sent to the Livestock Loss Board and help form the basis for compensation.
His agency also sets snares and culvert traps to catch bears involved in conflicts, and he and fellow technicians often work with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks grizzly bear management specialists like Mike Madel in Choteau and Wesley Sarmento in Conrad.
Hoggan noted that Montana’s compensation program does not include a multiplier factor and it doesn’t compensate livestock owners for “soft” losses — like lower fall calf weight, cows or sheep aborting because of stress, damage to fences, barns and grain bins, and the mental stress of having to work in areas where grizzlies could pose a threat to humans.
Joe Kipp said, “Not only do we need to be compensated for our animals, but the biggest fear for me is the danger to human life.” He said he wants the Governor’s Council to consider just how many human fatalities there have been in Montana, where people were killed and eaten by grizzlies.
Hilary Cooley, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery coordinator, told farmers and ranchers that the USFWS is being sued in federal court over its delisting of the grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The USFWS won’t move forward with delisting of the NCDE bears until the litigation is resolved and the agency knows how to craft a delisting plan that will pass muster with the courts.
Edwards walked ranchers through the process to file a claim for compensation with the Montana Livestock Loss Board, but noted that the board struggles for enough funding to pay for prevention and compensation claims with a budget of about $300,000 a year.
“We have a terrible struggle getting dollars for these prevention efforts,” he said, adding that Montana doesn’t have the money to fund a multiplier rate.
“We know the economic impact to the state is huge,” he said of livestock losses.
Two members of his board attended the meeting: Karli Clark Johnson who grew up in Choteau and Doreen Gillespie of Kevin.
Moving forward, Bradley said it’s clear that Montana needs to look at using a multiplier factor and that farmers and ranchers need to avail themselves of the resources available.
Skelton said he thinks rural people need to push their elected officials to shift bear management from a recovery mode to a management mode, and that needs to happy soon — “I think before something really does break or something really catastrophic happens.”
Bradley said the next Grizzly Bear Advisory Council meeting will be in March at the Stage Stop Inn in Choteau. She welcomed everyone to attend. For more information on the BNSGA, go online to www.bnsga.com.