Before hanging up the spurs and returning to the Flathead Valley, I fulfilled a career-long desire of becoming a “country editor,” spending four rewarding years at a small but vital newspaper in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains bordering Shenandoah National Park.
Having written extensively about Montana’s lethal grizzlies, I took an immediate liking to the laid-back black bears that regularly performed somersaults at my remote log cabin atop Bessie Bell Mountain. Far more menacing than the bears, I learned first hand, were disease-transmitting ticks and venomous copperheads and timber rattlers, one of the latter sinking its fangs into my dog on our front door step.
It was during my first year as editor that I set out to recap the tiny county’s 2016-17 fall-winter hunting season, the 21 harvested bears turning out to be the lowest take in two decades. But what mostly caught my eye were the 18 “nuisance” bears dispatched during the off-season by county farmers (read hay, fruit and beef cattle) issued so-called “kill permits.”
It didn’t take long to discern a troubling pattern. Take 2013, when local farmers equipped with permits shot 57 bears dead in their tracks. One farmer alone killed 28 of the bears.
I reached out to the bear project leader at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who acknowledged the staggering death toll “stood out” as “not near ideal” and far too often “no value is placed on these animals.”
And unfortunately, as is the case in Montana, fish and game officers are few and far between, so there was little if any oversight of the otherwise legal kills. You just have to trust that it’s the farmers alone doing the shooting and only then when other bear-deterrents fail.
On a positive note, my resulting newspaper article brought about some immediate if not dramatic change.
In each of the subsequent years of 2017 and 2018, only three bears were taken with kill permits, a far cry from the aforementioned 57. Perhaps more telling, the number of farmers applying for the permits dropped by more than half in a year’s time to six.
I recall this as a word of caution to Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, which complying in recent days with directives of Helena’s Senate Bill 295 adopted an administrative rule for grizzly bear management –hinging of course on the endangered species being delisted in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems, as Montana’s Republican legislators and governor are pushing for.
The commission’s most controversial decision, based on the public testimony and ongoing concerns and objections: issuing grizzly bear kill permits to livestock owners who utilize public lands and have no luck with non-lethal bear deterrents.
If the majestic grizzly bear is indeed delisted, rather than being vague hopefully the language and guidelines surrounding this state’s kill permits will be strict, precise and exacting, and accompanied by as much oversight and enforcement as Montana can muster.
John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.
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