Grizzly Bear Management: Science vs. Politics and Personality

The Grizzly Bear Advisory Council has a tough task ahead of them this week—they have to find a way to agree.

The eighteen-member council assigned by Montana Governor Steve Bullock in 2019 is currently working toward recommendations for the future of grizzly bear management in Montana, and as it turns out there are plenty of issues to disagree on.

The Governor carefully selected the GBAC members to represent the various interests of the entire state, but at 147,000 square miles Montana is the 4th largest state and slightly larger than Japan. To call the interests of Montanans diverse and the opinions about them divergent is a major understatement.

Regarding the appointments, Bullock said, “I’m grateful for the incredibly strong interest from Montanans across the state who offered to serve on this council, speaking both to the timeliness of this discussion and the passion for grizzly bears that Montanans share.”

Montanans do not share a unanimous passion for grizzly bears. The eighteen GBAC members, are nearly split down the middle between ranchers/hunters and conservationists/wildlife enthusiasts, and there is only one tribal member, which is disproportionate to the Native American population in Montana. Council members may all be passionate about grizzlies, but not for the same reasons, and that passion often creates a dichotomy among them.

A cornerstone of the GBAC’s guiding principles is that, “the best available science should inform decisions in all aspects of grizzly bear management and conservation.” It makes logical sense, and to the layperson it might even look straightforward. If it’s science that’s guiding the decisions about grizzly bear management, then the decisions should be made based on data gathered by biologists who are grills bear specialists, right?

Biology is part of it, but there are other factors driving the decisions and they boil down to two factors that have little to do with actual grizzly bears: politics and personality.

Since the GBAC was formed in April 2019, they’ve had thirteen public meetings to discuss “actionable recommendations that provide clear guidance to the Governor’s Office and agencies including Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Fish and Wildlife Commission.” They’ve also reviewed more than 16,000 public comments.

They last met via Zoom on August 6th, and the Governor is expecting their recommendation by August 31 but they’ve yet to reach a consensus. The council struggles with “those issues on which there is significant social disagreement.”

The council does agree on some things. The draft recommendations include an annual celebration to promote grizzly bear awareness, funding for a full-time bear education coordinator, and full-time bear management specialist through FWP. They also agree that consistent food-storage requirements should be developed and that public lands should have increased bear-proof infrastructure.

But when they disagree they really disagree.

One of the issues the council still needs to decide on has to do with the killing of grizzlies both by hunters and through lethal removal. Many ranchers see grizzlies as predators who are dangerous to live and work among, while wildlife advocates see grizzlies as valued, necessary participants in the ecosystem.

Despite the fact that research from universities in several states shows that killing carnivores disrupts coexistence efforts and might actually leads to increased livestock deaths, this issue will continue to be debated by the GBAC, FWP, and other agencies.

Another sticking point is around bear migration. Connectivity between the six distinct grizzly bear recovery zones is crucial for true species recovery because otherwise grizzlies will suffer from inbreeding and other issues related to genetic health. The council agrees on the importance of connectivity, but they haven’t yet come to an agreement about how grizzlies should be managed in the wildlife passage areas and buffer zones.

There’s much discord among council members, and it’s clear that that some members would like to see decisions made based on actual conflict—not possible conflict—while others think grizzly management should be prophylactic and cautionary.

At times the GBAC members seem to be arguing for the same outcome, yet find themselves hung up on the language, each side fearful that the words will lead to assumptions and misinterpretation.

Shawn Johnson and Heather Stokes from the University of Montana’s Center for Natural Resources & Environmental Policy program have facilitated the meetings. Stokes notes that the process is important for council members and that they’ve had to collaborate as they move toward finalizing their recommendation.

Stokes said, “What they’re really demonstrating is the ability to learn and understand the issues they’re not familiar with,” Stokes said. “It sets the example that conversation is possible.” The GBAC will meet again Wednesday, August 19th in Helena and via remote video to review the remain recommendations, finalize report content, establish a timeless for finalizing the report, and discuss the handoff to the Governor’s office.