Op-ed: We cannot support delisting Montana grizzly bears unless state laws are changed

Here is a well-reasoned op-ed that recently appeared in the Helena Independent Record opposing grizzly bear delisting due to problems with Montana’s current wildlife management  regime. You’ll see some familiar entries in the 35-name signature block, including NFPA Board of Directors member Diane Boyd.

(Bonus: the Char-Kosta News, official news publication of the Flathead Indian Reservation, has a lengthy discussion of the underlying background issues.)

Grizzly bear on log - Ken Peaco, NPS

We are 35 state, federal, and Tribal wildlife professionals who have worked together for more than 40 years to help recover and manage grizzly bears, wolves, and other wildlife in Montana. We did this by building science and fact-based management policies and plans with public input while carefully balancing the needs of bears and other wildlife with the needs of the people who live, work, and recreate in Montana.

We believed in and promoted the eventual delisting of recovered grizzlies and wolves and turning them over to state management. We believed that the wildlife professionals in Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) would be good stewards who would continue to carefully manage grizzly bears and wolves using science and facts after recovery and delisting.

All this changed in 2021 when a new legislative majority and a like-minded governor took office. Science-based wildlife management in Montana was replaced by anti-predator hysteria fueled by misinformation and emotion. Professional wildlife management by FWP biologists was replaced by partisan political intervention that overturned decades of sound wildlife policy.

Examples of legislation/regulations passed in 2021 that sabotages sound wildlife management:

• A law (SB 98) that says a person can shoot a grizzly bear if it is “threatening to kill a person or livestock.” “Threatening” is not defined. This will result in the unregulated killing of grizzlies anywhere by anyone.

• A law (SB 337) that says that FWP cannot relocate any grizzly bear captured in any type of conflict outside a recovery zone.

• A law (HB 224) mandating allowing the use of neck snares to kill wolves that will result in grizzly bear deaths and the deaths of countless numbers of other non-target animals.

• A law (HB 468) allowing the use of hounds to hunt black bears (which had been outlawed in Montana for 100 years). The use of hounds to hunt black bears will result in conflicts and death for grizzly bears in the areas where hounds are used.

• A law (SB 314) allowing the use of bait around wolf traps and neck snares. Bait will also attract grizzly bears and other forest carnivores to these sites where they will be trapped, or neck snared and be killed or maimed.

• Montana Code (MCA 87-2-519) allowing out of state landowners who own more than 640 acres and their “guests” to hunt both black bears and mountain lions with hounds on their property and on public lands surrounding their property for 2 miles in any direction, and to do so without buying a non-resident hound hunting license. The use of hounds to hunt black bears will result in conflicts and death for grizzly bears in the areas where hounds are used.

• A law (HB 225) extending the wolf trapping and neck snaring season into the time that both grizzly and black bears are out of their dens, which will result in bears being caught, maimed, or killed in wolf traps and neck snares.

• A law (SB 314) allowing hunting wolves over bait, even at night with spotlights and night vision scopes.

• A law (SB 267) that pays people to try to trap and kill wolves. This law takes wolf management back into the anti-predator bounty days of the 1800s.

In addition to meeting population objectives established in the Recovery Plan, a mandatory requirement of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for a species to be delisted is that the state have adequate regulatory mechanisms in place to assure that grizzlies (and wolves) in Montana remain healthy and recovered after delisting. Healthy and recovered grizzly (and wolf) populations are populations that are carefully managed and distributed across their suitable available habitat. Delisting does not mean that legislatures can drive grizzly and wolf populations down to minimum numbers.

Montana legislators and the governor were informed on numerous occasions about how these laws would undermine FWP’s ability to adequately manage grizzlies and risked wolves being relisted. They ignored this input and passed these laws anyway. These laws will result in excessive, unregulated killing of grizzly bears, making it impossible for FWP to adequately control the number of grizzly bear deaths within sustainable levels.

In addition to the actions of the Legislature, Montana’s sole congressional representative and junior senator have introduced legislation in Washington to bypass the requirements of the ESA and delist grizzly bears by congressional vote.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that if grizzly bears were delisted and turned over to state management, that the Legislature and governor would do the same thing to grizzlies that they are currently doing to wolves — they would likely try to legislatively minimize grizzly numbers inside recovery zones and eliminate most grizzlies outside recovery zones.

Before grizzly bears can be delisted:

• Laws that will result in excessive grizzly bear deaths and unnecessary restrictions on state grizzly management must be reversed (SB 98 and SB 337).

• There should be a commitment in law and policy to prohibit use of wolf killing methods that will also kill grizzly bears (HB 224, HB 468, SB 314, HB 225, SB 267) anywhere in grizzly range.

• The management of grizzly bears (and wolves) in Montana must return to management based on science and facts instead of politically driven misinformation and anti-predator hysteria.

If these measures were taken, we could support grizzly delisting. However, while these regressive laws and the legislative anti-predator attitudes that produced these laws remain in place, we cannot support the delisting of grizzly bears in Montana.

We strongly believe that grizzly bears must remain listed under ESA in Montana so that their populations remain healthy, and politicians are not able to reverse 40 years of grizzly recovery.

This opinion was submitted on behalf of the following 35 signers:

Chris Servheen, Missoula, Ph.D., 35 years U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as grizzly bear recovery coordinator (retired).

Chuck Schwartz, Bozeman, Ph.D., 20 years Alaska Fish and Game as research biologist (retired) and 16 years USGS as leader, interagency grizzly bear study team (retired).

Richard Mace, Kalispell, Ph.D., 31 years Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks as grizzly and black bear research biologist (retired).

Tim Manley, Bigfork, B.S., 37 years FWP in grizzly bear research and as grizzly bear management biologist (retired).

Harvey Nyberg, Lewistown, M.S., 26 years FWP, last position as regional supervisor (retired).

Gayle Joslin, Helena, M.S., 32 years FWP as wildlife management biologist and research biologist (retired).

Keith Aune, Bozeman, M.S., 31 years FWP as wildlife research biologist, laboratory supervisor, chief of wildlife research (retired) and 10 years as a wildlife biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (retired).

Bruce Sterling, Thompson Falls, M.S., 38 years FWP as management biologist (retired).

Diane Boyd, Kalispell, Ph.D., 8 years FWP as wolf and upland bird biologist (retired), 15 years University of Montana as large carnivore researcher (retired).

Ron Marcoux, Helena, M.S., 22 years FWP as biologist and deputy director (retired); 18 years with Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in land conservation and administration (retired).

Kristi DuBois, Missoula, M.S., 28 years FWP as a wildlife biologist (both game and nongame) (retired) and 6 years USFWS as a wildlife biologist (retired).

Tim Thier, Trego, M.S., 27 years FWP as wildlife biologist (retired) and 5 years USFWS as wildlife biologist (retired).

Heidi B. Youmans, Helena, M.S., 27 years FWP as area management biologist, upland game bureau chief, non-game bureau chief (retired).

Gary Olsen, Conrad, M.S., 34 years FWP as area biologist (retired).

Wayne Hadley, Deer Lodge, Ph.D., 23 years FWP as fisheries biologist (retired).

Gary Wolfe, Missoula, Ph.D., 4 years as a commissioner on the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission; 12 years Vermejo Park Ranch wildlife biologist/manager and big game hunting outfitter and guide; 15 years Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, wildlife biologist/field director, director of field operations, chief operating officer, president & CEO (retired); 11 years Vital Ground Foundation, wildlife biologist/executive director (retired).

Tim Aldrich, Missoula, B.S., 4 years as a commissioner on the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Greg Munther, Missoula, M.S., 32 years U.S. Forest Service as biologist and district ranger (retired).

Sterling Miller, Lolo, Ph.D., 21 years Alaska Fish and Game as wildlife management biologist (retired). Affiliate professor, UM.

Dan Carney, East Glacier, M.S., 31 years Blackfeet Tribe as senior wildlife biologist (retired).

Douglas H. Chadwick, Whitefish, M.S., 3 years wildlife technician with NPS, 40 years independent wildlife biologist collaborating with university and agency researchers.

Tom Puchlerz, Stevensville, M.S., 38 years USFS as wildlife biologist, district ranger and forest supervisor (retired).

Kate Kendall, Columbia Falls, M.S., 36 years NPS and USGS as research ecologist (retired).

Joe Fontaine, Helena, B.S., 6 years U.S. Bureau of Reclamation wildlife biologist, 18 years USFWS as deputy wolf recovery coordinator (retired), 4 years as deputy project leader National Wildlife Refuge Complex (retired).

Jay Gore, Missoula, M.S., 10 years USFS as wildlife biologist (retired), 13 years USFWS as wildlife biologist (retired), and 7 years Corps of Engineers as wildlife biologist (retired).

Mary Maj, Bozeman, M.S., 32 years USFS as district and regional wildlife biologist, resource staff officer, and district ranger (retired).

Dale Becker, Polson, M.S., 7 years as a private wildlife consultant and 32 years CSKT as Tribal wildlife program manager.

Edward Bangs, Helena, M.S., 36 years USFWS as wildlife biologist on Kenai NWR and Northern Rocky Mountain wolf recovery coordinator (retired).

Jim Claar, Missoula, M.S., 21 years USFS as wildlife biologist (retired), and 11 years Bureau of Indian Affairs as wildlife program manager (retired).

Jack Stanford, Bigfork, Ph.D., 36 years Flathead Lake Biological Station as director (retired).

Kerry R. Forsman, Missoula, Ph.D., 37 years UM as professor of biology and wildlife biology (retired).

Mike Phillips, Bozeman, M.S., 35 years: USFWS red wolf restoration leader (retired); NPS grey wolf restoration leader (retired); Turner Endangered Species Fund executive director; Montana state legislator 2006-2020.

Sandy Kratville, Missoula, M.S., 31 years USFS as wildlife biologist, including 5 years as USFS/Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation liaison (retired).

Mike Jimenez, Big Arm, M.S., 20 years USFWS grey wolf research and management (retired).

Lewis Young, Eureka, M.S., 31 years USFS as wildlife biologist and wildlife program manager (retired).