On the Front Lines
As the grizzly population expands, more Montanans are coming face to face with the emboldened bears.
This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
Leanne Hayne remembers everything about the May evening three years ago when she decided it was time for Montana to change the way it managed grizzly bears. It was getting near twilight when Leanne—who raises sheep with her husband, John, about 35 miles north of Choteau—stepped out of the couple’s red colonial-style home to investigate their dog’s incessant barking. The Hayne house sits in a clearing, surrounded by chokecherry bushes, along Dupuyer Creek. To the west towers the Rocky Mountain Front. This idyllic setting—complete with chickens, flowers, and vegetable garden—serves as headquarters for the couple’s sheep ranch and on-line yarn store. It’s also a magnet for wildlife.
As she walked out onto the back porch, Leanne saw an adult grizzly bear standing just 10 yards away. The bear didn’t charge, but it didn’t run away either. Showing no fear, it just stared at the slender woman and her barking dog. “I had shivers right here at the base of my skull move down my spine,” she says. “That’s when I realized that these huge beasts have to fear humans, that maybe it’s time to reconsider a hunting season.”
The grizzly population along the Rocky Mountain Front has begun spilling out to the east, into areas where the large animals haven’t lived for more than a century, says Mike Madel, Montana FWP grizzly bear management specialist. Complaints by ranchers, farmers, and others along the Front have also grown over the past decade, despite increasing efforts by the agency to prevent conflicts between bears and humans. It’s time, say many area residents, to bring back the grizzly hunt.
Montana hasn’t had a grizzly bear hunting season since the spring of 1991, when anti-hunting organizations successfully petitioned a federal court to halt the state’s grizzly season. Montana FWP would like to see a limited hunting season restored as part of its comprehensive strategy to manage grizzlies.
“We’re already doing a lot to manage grizzly bears,” says Glenn Erickson, chief of FWP’s Wildlife Management Bureau. Currently, he says, biologists redistribute carcasses of dead livestock away from ranches and towns into remote areas; trap and transfer nuisance grizzlies; and help landowners erect and pay for electric fencing around bee hives and sheep bedding grounds. They also work with other public land managers and conservation organizations to create refuge areas in forests where bears won’t be disturbed and pushed into places humans frequent.
“A regulated hunting season—used only when necessary and biologically justifiable—would give us another tool in our management toolbox,” says Erickson.
Though a season would be severely limited and would not reduce overall grizzly
numbers, adds Madel, “it would increase wariness among bears and could
reduce problems during years with poor berry production when bears move down
into farms and ranches to find food.”
Reviving a hunt, however, would be neither easy nor without controversy. Andrea Lococo, for one, would do whatever she could to stop a grizzly season.
“Unacceptable,” says Lococo, Rocky Mountain coordinator for The Fund for Animals, the anti-hunting organization that convinced a federal judge to stop Montana’s grizzly bear hunt. According to Lococo, grizzlies face far too many other threats, such as habitat loss and poaching, for even limited numbers to be taken by a hunting season.
Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), confirms that many legal obstacles could prevent the resurrection of Montana’s grizzly season. Servheen says that even if the species were removed from the federal endangered species list, a hunting season wouldn’t happen for years and years afterwards. If ever.
Grizzlies once lived and roamed from Alaska and Canada to Mexico, from Pacific Ocean beaches to the Great Plains. The first scientific observations of the grizzly came from the Corps of Discovery. So aggressive was the grizzly that Meriwether Lewis decided it was a different species from the black bear.
“I would rather fight two Indians than one bear,” Lewis wrote in 1805. “The men are becoming very fearful of the grizzly.”
Though there is no way to accurately estimate the animal’s population 200 years ago, biologists guess it was between 50,000 and 100,000 bears. Then, over the next century and a half, grizzlies in the lower 48 states were shot, trapped, and poisoned to near extinction. By the early 1970s scientists agreed that the number of grizzlies had dwindled to less than 1,000 in the contiguous United States, and the animal was listed as a federally threatened species there in 1975. Because Montana’s grizzly population was strong, and the state had been managing the bears successfully for decades, it was able to hold a limited hunting season until 1991.
The number of grizzlies has risen over the past several decades. Now it’s probably somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 animals, say biologists. The two areas with the largest grizzly populations are the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), which includes Glacier National Park. Current estimates put the GYE population between 400 and 600 grizzlies, and the NCDE population at 400 to 700. In other words, most of the grizzlies in the lower 48 states call Montana home.
Each year, that home appears to be growing a bit larger, as more grizzlies range out of their historical refuge in Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. “The population is both increasing slightly and expanding its range eastward,” says Madel, who, like FWP’s other grizzly specialists in Kalispell, Missoula, and Bozeman, works with area landowners and grizzlies. According to Madel, the bears that bother the Haynes or move even farther east are either young ones looking to set up a home range or adults forced out onto the prairie by seasonal food shortages, such as a chokecherry crop failure. As grizzlies expand both their population and home ranges, Madel is finding bears in places not seen in 100 years or more.
“We caught a yearling male this year almost out to Valier, close to Lake Francis,” Madel says. That’s smack dab in prairie country, not where people typically think of grizzlies roaming.
Such sightings come as no surprise to the Haynes, whose 3,000-acre ranch lies on the north edge of Dupuyer, a town of about 70 that hugs the prairie roughly 15 miles from the eastern front of the Rockies. When both were growing up in Dupuyer during the 1950s, there were no bears along brushy Dupuyer Creek, a small stream that springs from the mountains and spills onto the plains.
“When I was a kid,” Leanne says, “I spent all my time down there.”
Times have changed. As the grizzly population has expanded east along the Dupuyer Creek corridor, parents no longer let their children play along the stream. With roughly 300 ewes, the ranching couple knows about predators. Coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, and golden eagles are part of the sheep business. Grizzlies, however, are a new component. During the summer of 1999, at least six grizzlies came right into their yard. John recalls saying, “The next one in my yard I’m gonna shoot.” He eventually did fire off a shotgun barrel full of 12-gauge birdshot to scare away a female bear that came close to the house.
For Leanne, that particular night was her most terrifying encounter with grizzlies. “A female and a cub were in the chicken yard, probably eating chicken feed,” she says. “The dog was barking at the bears, and the female bear was roaring at the dog.” Alone at the time, the frightened rancher ran back into the house and started calling everyone she could think of: the Pondera County sheriff, the local FWP game warden, Madel. By the time help arrived, the bears were gone, only to return early the next morning. That’s when John, who by this time had returned home, fired off the birdshot.
The Haynes point out that they value wildlife and have preserved land as habitat for birds, deer, and other wild animals. They just had no idea that the same habitat would also attract grizzlies, and that the bears would be so bold.
“They should at least be afraid of humans,” John says. “But you’re yelling, and the dog’s barking, and they just stand there and look at you.”
Six months later another bear came into the yard, showing no fear. That prompted the Haynes to erect an electric fence around the three acres where their house sits, splitting the cost with FWP. Previously, they had put up an electric fence around a one-acre sheep bedding ground, dividing the cost with the agency and Defenders of Wildlife, a Missoula-based conservation organization. Out of their own pocket, the Haynes have also installed an electric fence around a sheep summer pasture.
Why no hunting?
The Haynes now sleep better at night, but electric fences are not the only solution they and many other East Front residents are looking for. What they want to know is why, if state biologists say a healthy grizzly population is expanding from the Rockies onto the prairie and interfering with home and ranching activities, Montana can’t re-institute a limited hunting season.
There are no easy answers, says Madel. Because the grizzly is a federally listed species, the state of Montana has no authority to allow for a hunting season. So unless the species is de-listed and full management authority reverts back to the state, there’s not even the possibility of hunting.
What would it take to remove the NCDE grizzlies from federally threatened status? For one thing, the state would need legally defensible data showing that the population is healthy and increasing. Madel and other FWP biologists know the NCDE population is growing and expanding. But Servheen, the federal grizzly bear recovery coordinator, says the USFWS will needs better grizzly bear population data that would stand up to the inevitable lawsuits that anti-hunting groups would file.
The federal agency may get that data within several years. Montana Sen. Conrad Burns is seeking $1 million in federal money to better monitor the NCDE grizzly population. The new study would be patterned after work recently conducted in Glacier National Park, using scent stations that attract bears. A strand or two of barbed wire surrounds the stations, and when a bear crosses the wire, the barbs catch hair. By examining DNA in hair follicles, scientists can distinguish individual animals and thus make an estimate of an entire bear population in the area where the stations are set up.
“The DNA study will give a one-point-in-time population estimate,” says
Servheen, adding that a total of $3 million is needed for a comprehensive
study, and that the research would take four years to complete. Researchers
from Glacier National Park and FWP would conduct the DNA study.
Montana also needs ecosystem-specific grizzly management plans that prove to the USFWS—and to federal courts—that the state would not allow grizzly populations to become threatened. FWP has produced such a plan for northwestern Montana grizzlies and recently wrote a draft plan for grizzly management in Montana’s portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The grizzly population there is closer to de-listing than the NCDE population. That’s because, over the past two decades, most federal money available to monitor grizzly numbers has gone to the Yellowstone region, which contains one of the nation’s most popular national parks. As a result, bear biologists have been able to more accurately document the GYE grizzly population.
Arnie Dood, FWP endangered species coordinator, hopes the combination of management plans and more accurate data will eventually allow Montana to manage grizzlies like it does other big game species, which includes using regulated hunting seasons when necessary and biologically justifiable.
“Grizzly bear management is bear management is wildlife management,” he says. “Managing grizzlies should be like managing other wildlife.” Dood adds that Montana grizzlies thrived for decades under state management that included controlled, regulated hunting. The species was designated as a game animal in 1923, and for nearly 70 years the state was able to allow for some hunting while managing conflicts between landowners and a steadily increasing number of bears.
FWP’s grizzly bear management plan, which was out for public review for six months, explains how Montana would carry out management activities such as responding to southwestern Montana grizzlies destroying property or livestock, restricting campers and other recreationists in grizzly country, reducing conflicts between grizzlies and livestock owners, and managing restricted grizzly bear hunting seasons.
Under no circumstances
For many people, however, even limited hunting should never again be an option. “Under no circumstances should FWP consider opening a hunting season on grizzly bears,” says Lococo, from The Fund for Animals. “We do not need to add to the perils they already face by legalizing a hunting season on these very slow-reproducing animals.”
Anti-hunting groups maintain that, because bears have so few young, it could take decades for their populations to recover if they were overhunted. The biologists, however, point out that any grizzly bear hunting would be closely monitored and extremely restricted. Madel notes that hunting would create wariness in individual bears, “especially the young females that haven’t seen hunting pressure and aren’t teaching their cubs to be afraid of people.” Moreover, says Madel, limited hunting could cull some of the problem bears now vexing the Haynes and other Front residents. “If we held hunts on private land where we didn’t want bears habituated, then it would be the boldest and least wary bears that would be killed,” he says.
FWP’s southwestern Montana grizzly bear management plan will soon be submitted to the USFWS. Similar plans done by Wyoming and Idaho will outline those states’ plans for managing Yellowstone ecosystem grizzlies if the species were de-listed. But every step of the de-listing process will certainly be accompanied by lawsuits.
“We would explore all the avenues available to us to prevent what we consider premature de-listing, including legal action,” says Lococo.
Translation: De-listing the grizzlies visiting the Haynes will take years and years. And a grizzly bear hunting season? Don’t bet the ranch on it.
For now, FWP grizzly specialists continue to help the Haynes and other ranchers prevent bear conflicts. But the grizzly population continues to expand without any hunting to make bears skittish. Madel fears that bear-human conflicts may soon overwhelm biologists’ ability to trap problem bears and transfer them to other areas. Eventually, he says, there may be no more places to put offending grizzlies, forcing government agencies to destroy them.
Bruce Auchly, an FWP information officer at Great Falls, is a frequent contributor to Montana Outdoors
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