The Grizzly Bear Advisory Council met Nov. 13 and 14 in Bozeman to further its discussion on the grizzly bear issues in Montana, specifically distribution and connectivity, and how those two aspects of the management process apply to the recommendations that the GBAC is charged with putting forward in 2020.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and U.S. Geological Survey staff were on hand to update the Council on current distributions in each of the grizzly recovery areas, as well as explain why connectivity is important to grizzly bear recovery and continuity.
According the Cecily Costello, FWP biologist, genetic diversity is what makes connectivity so important – eventually the grizzlies in each ecosystem will begin to be inbred, causing any number of problems for the species. Costello pointed out that there is no crisis yet, but every breeding season gets the bears one step closer.
Currently, there are approximately 45 miles between the southern end of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) and the Greater Yellowstone Ecoystem (GYE), and that gap is closing fairly rapidly.
Why does connectivity come into the management discussion? According to Costello, 51% of those acres are private land, which means ranches, farms, etc. that the grizzlies are going to have to move into and occupy in order to make that connection with the neighboring ecosystem. That means more manpower, more resources, and, of course, more funding to keep those bears out of trouble as they move into new territory.
According to USFWS’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator Hilary Cooley, six grizzlies have been tracked moving between the NCDE and the GYE – two traveled south, four traveled north – but they have yet to set up residency in a new place.
Cooley said the service has been moving one to two NCDE bears to the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosytem (CYE) every year to “boost genetic diversity and the population.” However, USFWS would like to see the NCDE and GYE bears travel to new destinations on their own, and will not move bears between the two ecosystems.
The distribution information given to the Council shows just how well grizzlies are recovering, spreading out, and adapting to their new territory. According to Costello, in 1994, grizzlies occupied 17,000 square kilometers of public land in the NCDE and 9,000 square kilometers of private land. In 2018, those numbers jumped tremendously to 25,000 sq. km. and 30,000 sq. km., respectively.
According to Mark Haroldson, biologist for the US Geological Survey, in the GYE, the number of private acres occupied by grizzlies rose from 600 sq. km. in 1990 to 12,000 sq. km. in 2018. In 2014, the occupation of GYE bears on private and public land was 58,314 sq. km.
That’s a lot of information to swallow at once. After the presentations, the Council broke up into groups to brainstorm and come up with questions and solutions for how to make connectivity feasible, and how to protect the public land users, as well as the private landowners, ranchers, and farmers, from conflicts as the bears move into new territory.
The Council came up with several priority areas, including funding, social tolerance, and education and outreach, along with several follow up questions and suggestions under each category. The support agencies will work to provide answers to many of these questions before the next Council meeting.
What is the current funding? Who provides that funding? (Federal, State, County, Private) How is it allocated?
How does the listed status impact current funding and potential available funding if grizzlies are delisted?
How do we address the lack of capacity? (More people=more funding.)
How does grizzly conservation and management work with or against other agency priorities? (Competing funding, opportunity for partnerships, funding collaboration)
How does distribution inform where resources are allocated?
What are the resource gaps?
Are there barriers beyond funding in creating positions? Legislation?
How can we engage people for funding that are not yet directly impacted?
What is the funding for livestock loss compensation? Where are the gaps? How are these programs run?
What incentives exist for landowners? What incentives are needed?
Are there any tourism dollars going into grizzly conservation and management, especially from Yellowstone and Glacier?
What are the metrics being used in the various studies? (UM Metcalf Survey, High Divide Survey, University of Wyoming, Idaho State, University of Idaho)
What are gaps in the surveys? Does the Council need to send out its own survey to address these gaps?
How is social tolerance defined? (Considering all opinions from all sides)
Where should grizzly bears exist? Where should they NOT exist?
How to balance social tolerance and biological suitability?
EDUCATION AND OUTREACH
How to provide easily accessible and understandable information to the general public?
Which agencies are responsible for education and outreach?
How to engage people when they are not yet directly impacted?
What are the current conflict prevention tools? What is working and what isn’t? What are the barriers? Where are the gaps?
How do we get out ahead of the issues?
The Council obviously has a mountain of information to process and consider when making any kind of recommendation to the Governor, and with only a year to come to a consensus on as many management recommendations as possible, one can only imagine the time and energy each Council member is investing this project.
The Council has discussed a few key ideas for funding, which is really the root of every management concern – who is going to pay for all of this work, and how?
A couple ideas came up in discussion – the possibility of making a nationwide or worldwide fund that anyone can contribute to at any time; an extra “tourism tax” on visitors to Yellowstone or Glacier Parks; collaboration between landowners and NGOs to have some kind of “blanket coverage” for dealing with grizzlies in their livestock; a voluntary “tourism tax” to which visitors to our state could contribute.
The social tolerance issue has come up many times in discussions within the Council already, proving that it is a topic that needs to be explored and solidly defined before the Council can move forward with recommendations.
What is completely acceptable for one person – say someone that enjoys seeing grizzlies in nature and on public lands but lives in town – is completely out of the question for another – maybe a rancher on the Rocky Mountain Front or in the Gravellys that is suffering depredation losses every year. The Council is charged with making a fair assessment that everyone can agree upon.
Information and education is always a tough subject – where and how are the resources best used? How far should the outreach go beyond the current occupied area? Currently, there are several private landowner groups, livestock associations, and NGOs that are working to make information available for everyone affected by grizzlies, but that isn’t enough.
The agencies responsible for grizzly bear management are also going to have to step up their games and work harder to educate people before grizzly bears move into their area, and provide the proper information and resources for conflict prevention.
The next Council meeting is scheduled for Dec. 4 and 5 in Missoula. More details will be available on the Council’s website (www.fwp.mt.gov/fishandwildlife/management/grizzlybear/gbac.html) as the meeting gets closer.
The website also a comment form, which the public is encouraged to use to let the Council know their concerns/questions/etc.