Grizzly Bear Advisory Council: Recommendations Weak, Opportunities Missed

The fate of Montana’s grizzly bears–and therefore, the majority of the grizzly bear population in the Rockies–may be decided in the next month. 

Montana’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council (GBAC), the citizens assembled by the governor to create recommendations for grizzly bear management in Montana if or when the grizzly bear is delisted from the Endangered Species Act, released their draft recommendations on June 8th. They plan to finalize these recommendations by the end of July. 

Unsurprisingly, and yet still disappointingly, the GBAC has failed to craft any robust, clear recommendations for coexistence with grizzly bears in Montana. While they’ve managed to cobble together some watery statements on “increasing awareness” and “encouraging” citizens to carry bear spray, their progress has been underwhelming. And the repercussions for grizzlies could be serious.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks :: Governor's Grizzly Bear Advisory ...
The Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council (GBAC). Image from Montana FIsh, Wildlife & Parks website.

Community Education About Grizzlies

Outreach and education are the focal thrust of the GBAC draft. Key recommendations include a designated state day to celebrate grizzlies, an incentive program for communities and businesses to become “Bear Aware,” and the creation of a K-12 Bear Aware educational curriculum. The draft does not outline what would be required for a community or business to become “Bear Aware,” but suggests promotional branding associated with the designation.

Likely because these measures are not considered controversial, these vague “awareness” measures received a good deal of support from the council members. Unfortunately, such empty gestures will likely do very little to actually benefit grizzly bears.

The GBAC recommends the state encourage bear spray rental programs and require “all recreationalists, commercial and personal foragers, hunters, and anglers” to buy a conservation license, watch bear ID and proper bear spray usage videos, and take a grizzly bear identification test. Such licenses and bear ID videos and tests are already required for hunters obtaining permits for black bears. 

The GBAC stopped well short of requiring any backcountry users to carry bear spray, despite the fact that it saves both human and bear lives. They simply “encourage” hunters and recreationalists to do so. Research shows that bear spray is the most effective non-lethal deterrent in unwanted human-bear encounters, more so than firearms, and allows more bears to survive unwanted encounters than the use of guns.

Again, the GBAC embraces the least controversial half-measure. Will their bland “encouragement” save lives? Bear or human? Probably not.

GBAC Waffles on Grizzly Connectivity

The council recognizes that “connectivity is vital to the longer term sustainability, persistence, and resiliency of grizzly bears.” Indeed, connecting bear recovery zones is an expressed priority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as genetic isolation–such in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where grizzly bears have been isolated for over one-hundred years–is a major threat to grizzly bear health. 

Yet there seems to be disagreement in the GBAC over what to do with this understanding. The GBAC writes that “where appropriate,” “connectivity between ecosystems should be facilitated.” 

But what does such facilitation look like? The draft outlines coordination with private landowners and efforts to reduce transportation-related bear mortalities as two pathways. They have also asked for funding for conservation easements, which typically assist with grizzly bear movement over private lands. 

In their opening vision statement, however, edits indicate that some council members see connectivity efforts as a possible threat to local communities.

“Further restrictions and limitations in these corridors… will result in a negative attitude towards the grizzly bear by the local citizens that reside near or regularly utilize these lands,” wrote one council member. Instead, education and “proactive” programs should be used to facilitate connectivity rather than “additional physical restriction and land use limitations.” 

It’s likely that this equivocation around the question of connectivity will end in the same place as other recommendations: at best, it will be a tepid gesture of lip service toward meaningful recovery. At worst, it will be a roadblock to achieving the critical connectivity that grizzlies require to survive.

Grizzly/Livestock Conflict Prevention 

For livestock-grizzly interactions, the council is recommending that Montana fully fund the Livestock Loss Board Trust Fund, which would provide an opportunity to fund conflict prevention, compensate unconfirmed livestock losses and the indirect costs for ranchers associated with grizzly bears. (There is little information on the nuances that this measure would require.) Bear Tracks has previously reported about the GBAC’s focus on compensation and maintaining the status-quo of supporting the livestock industry rather than longer-term preventive measures.

As a nod in the right direction, the Council would also like certain practices such as carcass pickup and composting, electric fencing, and range riding to be eligible for USDA funding.

Hunting Grizzly Bears

The most hotly-contested issues the council has had to navigate, the role of hunting in grizzly bear management currently remains unresolved in the draft.

The science shows killing bears for sport does not prevent human-bear conflict, is an incorrect management tool, does not promote social tolerance for bears, and does not even generate much conservation revenue. Environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have weighed in heavily on this topic, strongly urging the GBAC against recommending trophy hunting for grizzly bears in Montana. 

Zack Strong of the NRDC says that he thinks the pro-hunting sentiment on the council is skewed. “A significant portion of the council members have indicated that they support the hunting of grizzly bears… I don’t think that’s representative of the Montana public or Northern Rockies public,” he said. Grizzly bears are already facing so many other challenges, be it genetic isolation or climate change, and, he added, “not only does hunting not help solve any of those problems, but it could make a lot of them worse.”

Despite such scientific information and lobbying efforts, the GBAC has not been able to reach consensus on hunting. Instead they have included in their draft both a pro-hunting and an anti-hunting statement, as well as recommendations for a hunt if it were to happen. It’s profoundly disappointing that the council has not recognized the myriad values of wild, living bears on the landscape. Most citizens of the United States find trophy hunting repugnant, and yet the GBAC soldiers on defending the “opportunity” for a few sport hunters to kill them for sport.

Strong said that he asked “council members to take a little bit more balanced approach, and if the council was going to give thought to what a hunting season might look like, that they give equal amounts of thought to what grizzly bear management looks like without a hunt.” Such consideration would require actually hearing presentations from those opposed to a grizzly hunt – something the council has not done.

Topics Neglected in the GBAC Draft

Climate Change. “The threat from increasing climate change and the impacts it may have on Montana ecosystems and their inhabitants should be addressed,” write the GBAC. This is the only area in the draft that mentions climate change, which is surprising, given climate change is one of the reasons the grizzly bear is still listed under the Endangered Species Act. Climate change is a significant influence on grizzly populations at this point. Ignoring that fact is disappointing and short-sighted.

Tribal Representation. There is shamefully little tribal representative on the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council, despite the fact that one of the GBAC’s stated goals is “Improving intergovernmental, interagency, and tribal coordination.” Only one member – Kristen Kipp – is a tribal member. It’s unclear how tribal coordination will be achieved without a wider diversity of tribal voices in the room.

While there’s still time for the GBAC to make some meaningful changes to their recommendations in the coming month, we don’t hold high hopes. This assembly has a great deal of power to determine the fate of Montana’s grizzly bears, and it appears that they’re unwilling–or unable–to make robust, meaningful recommendations to ensure that grizzlies have a sustainable future.

It’s especially disheartening since that’s precisely what most of us want: to live alongside wild, living grizzlies for generations to come.