Last week, the Montana Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council (GBAC) kicked off a series of three meetings about the future of bear management. According to the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks website, “In April 2019, Montana Governor Steve Bullock called for a Grizzly Bear Advisory Council to address these challenges and to help set a long-term vision for bear management and conservation in Montana.” Comprised of eighteen volunteer members with diverse backgrounds, the council convened this week to explore the complex issue of sport hunting grizzlies in Montana.
Grizzlies are not currently vulnerable to hunting in Montana, but potentially could be in the future. The council heard from “experts” in the field – three representatives discussing hunting of grizzlies from Montana, Alaska and British Columbia. According to Heather Stokes, the meeting facilitator: “The reason we focused on Alaska and BC is because those are the presenters we’ve got today and we thought those would be applicable and transferable to the experiences and landscape of Montana.”
No representatives from any conservation organizations were given an opportunity to present.
However, Ken McDonald of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) acknowledged some key facts the conservation world has long brought to the conversation about hunting. “Whether or not there’s hunting of grizzly bears really is a social and a value driven issue, from a biological standpoint, it’s a management tool once bears are delisted. Whether we utilize that tool or not is a bigger question that the public generally needs to weigh in on.” The following presentations, however, eschewed the question of the public appetite for trophy hunting of grizzlies in Montana. Instead, Garth Mowat from the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and Larry Van Daele of the Alaska Board of Game discussed how hunting in their respective communities had limited influence on conflict reduction or grizzly population size.
The logic is simple: the grizzlies that find themselves in conflict with humans are not the same bears that are the targets of trophy hunters. Those seeking to kill a grizzly are not going to do so in response to livestock depredation or hunt bears that are overly habituated to humans. Ken McDonald said: “There’s been some talk about we could use hunting as a way to address conflicts. If you really look at when most of the conflicts occur versus when these seasons occur, it’s probably a limited opportunity for hunting to address conflicts directly.”
McDonald continued: “For example if there’s a livestock depredation in June, we wouldn’t have a season where we could direct a hunter to go potentially take a bear that’s involved in that livestock depredation and for the most part, we probably don’t want to try and go there because if we are dealing with a livestock depredation or a human safety issue, we need the professionals like the Wildlife Services guys to get in there and take care of it and not rely on a hunter to maybe or maybe not take care of it. Hunting will probably not do a lot, at least as we’ve designed it here, will not do a lot to address conflicts directly.”
He concluded with an observation about the unethical nature of targeting bears as the result of conflicts. “The other thing we have concern for is fair chase. For example, if you have a bear hanging out at a garbage dumpster, having someone go shoot a bear coming out of a garbage dumpster wouldn’t be fair chase and we are real cognizant of that as well.”
Mowat observed that when the grizzly hunt in British Columbia was halted, there was no increase in bear/human conflicts. “In fact, I would say the way you manage conflict is different than the way you manage a hunt and they’re not even the same bears most of the time, so we didn’t do anything when we shut the hunt down and the world has not fallen apart. We have had no more attacks and no one’s been killed or anything terrible like that.” In other words, the hunt was not keeping conflicts at bay; coexistence efforts were.
The testimony of both Mowat and Van Daele also confirmed that hunting is not a useful tool for managing the overall grizzly population size in the region.
“The hunt doesn’t control the number of bears in the landscape at all,” claimed Mowat.
So, according to these presenters, what benefit does a grizzly hunt serve? According to Van Deale, trophy hunters seeking an “opportunity” who also, somehow, value conservation. He explained that, “allowing bear hunts would be for trophy hunt for bragging rights. A lot of folks want to spend a lot of money to share that unique opportunity to share their stories to share with others or images or taxidermy mounts… you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, primarily for trophy hunts and bragging rights for people and a lot of those folks who want those bragging rights are honestly concerned about conservation when they spend that kind of money.”
There was insufficient discussion of tribal values around grizzlies, or the millions of tourist dollars that pour into Western economies from visitors who hope to see live, wild bears.
The council ran out of time to complete their conversation about the possibility of a grizzly trophy hunt in Montana, and will continue their exploration of the social facets of the decision.
One would hope that the continuing conversation will include meaningful representation from Montana tribal communities, the ethical context of trophy or sport hunting, and the community members whose businesses rely on tourism and the massive industry of wildlife watching.