Montana Goes Slow on Griz Hunt

Griz recovery is a testament to human tolerance, our love for nature and the brilliance of the North American Model of wildlife management

By Rob Breeding

It looks as though Montana will hold off on grizzly hunting in 2018, despite the recent delisting of the bears under the Endangered Species Act.

I’m comfortable with the go-slow approach. Grizzly bears aren’t like wolves or elk, species that can reproduce relatively quickly given suitable habitat and management, so FWP’s caution is understandable.

“Sport” hunting of grizzly bears will come to Montana sooner rather than later, however, just as it did with wolves. I won’t participate in hunts for either species, but I’m glad to see we’ve reached the “management” phase of the recovery process. Management is a not-too-subtle euphemism for killing when it comes to wildlife.

This kind of management can be both biological and social/political.

It’s biological management when we increase cow permits in a hunting district where the elk population is above objectives. It’s social/political management when we allow wolf hunts in areas where the landscape could probably support more predators, but big-game hunters and ranchers would howl about it louder than the canines celebrating a full moon.

And so it will be the case when Montana allows griz hunts. We won’t “manage” bears because we’re running out of suitable habitat. We’ll do so to make sure we don’t run out of social tolerance for bears in places we’re not accustomed to seeing them.

Montana grizzly bears are occupying territory — such as the Sweet Grass Hills — where they haven’t been seen in decades. Griz roamed the Hills in the summer of 2016, and residents of towns such as Valier along the Rocky Mountain Front are reacquainting themselves with the day-to-day precautions of living in bear country.

That’s what happens when you recover an endangered species. As bear numbers grow, youngsters will wander, searching for suitable habitat unoccupied by inhospitable adults. And as the bears wander, inevitably their explorations will lead them to trouble. The griz that trekked across the prairie to the Hills were likely responsible for killing 13 sheep.

We can expect incidents such as this as Montana grizzly bears expand their range. We’ll need to respond promptly to such problems, relocating bears, or removing them from the wild altogether if they can’t stay out of trouble.

We also need to prepare for the inevitable day when one of these wide-ranging bears attacks and possibly kills a human. Bear attacks in the places where we’re accustomed to the presence of griz — Glacier National Park and Yellowstone — are met with a reservoir of acceptance that won’t exist when it happens in a small prairie town 100 miles east of the Continental Divide.

If you’re inclined to underestimate the potential impact of such an attack on the social/political side of management, consider the case of Arizona. In 1996, a relocated black bear attacked and severely mauled a teenage girl as she slept in her tent in the mountains near Tucson. Ever since, problem bears in Arizona have been managed in a quick and permanent fashion.

Is that rough on bears? Probably. They’re just doing what bears do, after all. But Arizonans who complain are met with a swift retort from Game and Fish officials: We’re not going to explain to another mother why the department relocated a bear which then attacked and maimed her child.

Griz recovery is a testament to human tolerance, our love for nature and the brilliance of the North American Model of wildlife management. Montanans may soon learn, for those who don’t realize already, that managing a restored population of large, dangerous predators is more difficult than was recovering them in the first place.

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