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.