On Thursday, Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Montana) said on the floor of the House of Representatives that grizzly bears are turning to children as food sources.
“Parents told us how they put bars on their windows because the grizzly bears were looking in their children’s bedrooms. At the point bears view children as a food source, we need to make changes. We need to put human safety ahead of the recovered grizzly bear,” Gianforte said, when introducing a bill that would amend the Endangered Species Act.
Leading grizzly bear scientists said that Gianforte’s comments were “irresponsible,” “bogus,” and “evidence-free.”
“Grizzly bears are not trying to eat children, and they’re not trying to look in children’s windows. They are not seeking people, particularly children, to eat,” said Chris Servheen, who retired in 2016 after working as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator for 35 years. “That is not happening.”
Gianforte was talking about an October meeting in Choteau, where he invited Sec. of the Interior David Bernhardt out to lobby the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove protections under the Endangered Species act for grizzly bears.
At the meeting, two members of the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council – Kristen Kipp and Trina Jo Bradley – shared stories about their experiences with grizzlies “stalking” children or approaching their homes in response to babies crying.
Servheen said that it is reasonable that some people may be concerned when a grizzly approaches their home, and he understands having concerns about letting your children play outside if a bear is nearby. But there is no information or research that backs up the claim that grizzlies are engaging in that behavior, and Gianforte should know better.
“Just because somebody said something doesn’t mean it’s true,” Servheen said. “To repeat such a statement on the floor of the House of Representatives is irresponsible and uninformed.”
Hall recommended Bear Tracks reach out to the Montana Stockgrowers Association, the Montana Farm Bureau and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Those organizations were among hand-picked attendees at Gianforte’s event in Choteau.
“Regarding his remarks on the House floor, Greg relayed to lawmakers stories he heard from parents who have had encounters with grizzly bears. These stories have been written, and I hope you and the scientists you talked with consider the widely reported human impact of the recovered grizzly bear,” Hall said.
Barrie Gilbert has studied grizzly bears for more than 40 years and even survived a grizzly mauling himself, which he says was not the bear’s fault. Gilbert called Gianforte’s comments “bogus and fear-inducing.”
“The instance of grizzlies preying on people is infinitely small, domestic dogs are a much bigger threat than grizzlies,” Gilbert said.
If people are sloppy with food, livestock or dog food, they may approach a house, especially if they’re food-stressed, Gilbert said. But they’re not there to eat people.
“They’re no different than raccoons or coyotes if you leave food around,” Gilbert said. “This is a human management problem, not a grizzly bear problem.”
Gianforte’s bill – the Less Imprecision in Species Treatment Act – would weaken the Endangered Species Act and make it easier for species to be delisted. It would also penalize people who submit false information in a listing petition by banning them from submitting petitions for 10 years.
Servheen questioned how this bill would change grizzly bear management or distribution. He said even if bears are delisted, “there’s not some panacea” that they won’t be attracted to livestock and garbage. Bears will continue to be on the prairie, and sometimes they will approach houses. Problem bears will be removed, but following the same management-guided, thought-out protocol they are now.
“We’re not gonna have an extermination policy that every grizzly bear beyond a certain line is gonna be destroyed,” Servheen said. “This won’t do that, and it’s irresponsible to think that’s the case.”
Grizzly bears in both the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which has about 700 bears, and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which has about 1,000 bears in the area around Glacier National Park, have been dispersing into new habitat in recent years. Some argue this dispersal means that grizzlies have recovered, while others argue that climate change has reduced the food availability in those areas. In that dispersal, grizzly bears have been killed by humans at record rates in recent years.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has twice tried to delist grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but environmentalists have challenged both decisions and won because a federal judge ruled the service’s science was “arbitrary and capricious.” The federal government, as well as the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, are appealing that decision. The service has also indicated it may seek to remove protections from bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes the area around Glacier National Park.
Gianforte is currently running for governor of Montana. Last month, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported on a gubernatorial candidate forum hosted by the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, and all five major gubernatorial candidates – Republican Attorney General Tim Fox, Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, Republican state Sen. Al Olszewski, Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Democratic businesswoman Whitney Williams – support removing federal protections for the grizzly bear.
David Mattson, who served on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team for two decades and whose science helped block the delisting of the grizzly bear in Yellowstone, pointed out that only 80 people have been known to have been killed by a grizzly in North America since the 1860s and only three were children. Of those, two were near unsecured human food.
“Even these few tragic cases could have been prevented by simple precautions,” Mattson said in an email.
Between 1850 and 1950, humans killed over 60,000 grizzlies in the Lower 48, while grizzlies killed only 60 or so people during this same period of time – 1000 times fewer, Mattson said. Even with Endangered Species Act protections, which began in 1975, humans have killed more than 1,000 bears in the Northern Rockies, while grizzlies have killed around a dozen humans in that time period, according to Mattson.
“Representative Gianforte’s statement is yet another example of the evidence-free hyperbole that has come to typify our political discourse. It degrades the dignity of his political office and insults the intelligence of anyone who is the least bit informed about grizzly bears,” Mattson said.
Servheen said the responsible management of grizzlies has helped them reach the population levels they’re at today, but pointed out that they’re still gone from 96 percent of their historic range.
“Grizzlies are native to Montana, and Montana is proud to have more grizzlies than any other state,” Servheen said. “We manage grizzly bears in order to have healthy grizzly populations and healthy human populations.”