Montana Sen. Debby Barrett is focused on changing policy in regards to how Montana deals with its large predators and she’s starting with three bills currently working their way through the Montana Senate.
Barrett, a Dillon Republican, represents Senate District 36, which encompasses Madison, Beaverhead and a portion of Jefferson County. Constituents in her district, particularly agriculture producers, have been dealing with increasing wolf numbers for more than a decade, but recently the grizzly bear numbers and activity have caused concern.
“What happened is out of Yellowstone Park and other areas the bear population grew and grew and the same thing that happened with the wolves happened with grizzly bears,” Barrett told the Senate Natural Resources Committee last Wednesday during a hearing on Senate Bill 142.
According to Barrett the three bills she has sponsored focus on large predator policy, not wildlife management.
Senate Bill 142 would require Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to notify the public when they transplant any bear, mountain lion or wolf for any reason. It would also require that the agency notify the sheriff in the county where the animal was transplanted along with local landowners.
Senate Bill 143 would put into policy the use of “preemptive” grizzly bear management tools to avoid conflict with humans and livestock. These preemptive controls would include “trapping and lethal measures.”
Senate Bill 108 would require that county and tribal governments within 200 miles of national parks, which have a viable population of wolves and bears, have opportunity for consultation and coordination “with state and federal agencies prior to state and federal policy decisions involving large predators and large game species.”
In the case of both wolves and grizzly bears, the population – at least in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – has recovered, Barrett said. The only reason these two species are still protected under the Endangered Species Act is because of ongoing litigation.
And while wolves have gotten a lot of attention in the past couple of years, bears are now creating concern with livestock producers and recreationists in southwest Montana, she said.
At Wednesday’s hearing Barrett told the story of three small ranchers in her district who had to give up having a herder with their cattle because of the constant threat of grizzly bears. At the end of the season, the three ranchers had lost at total of 80 head of cattle, 50 of which could not be accounted for at all.
Her bills mimic legislation that has already passed to deal with grizzly bears in Idaho and Wyoming, Barrett said.
Her concerns are in many ways the same concerns FWP officials have, said Ron Aasheim, FWP bureau chief in Helena.
Grizzly bears are expanding their range all over Montana, from the Rocky Mountain Front to the Gravelly Mountains.
Unlike black bears, when grizzly bears have conflict with humans they are often killed rather than transplanted, Aasheim said. But some get transplanted every year.
Last year FWP transplanted 28 grizzly bears and 49 black bears, he said.
Typically bears that are transplanted are nuisance bears that get into garbage or linger close to homes or communities, Aasheim said.
And, like Barrett, Aasheim believes the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population and Montana’s wolf population are both recovered and should be managed by the state. Unfortunately, the litigation keeps the agencies hands tied when it comes to management, he said.
“We really believe, just like with the wolf, you need to manage them and balance with other wildlife and tolerance with the public,” Aasheim said. “When they’re on the (Endangered Species) list we don’t have that flexibility.”
FWP supports SB 143 and 108, but they would still like to see some changes to SB 142. At last Wednesday’s hearing on SB 142, FWP Deputy Director Art Noonan said the reporting requirements within the bill were too onerous.
Beyond the public notice requirements of the bill, FWP would also be mandated to do an annual report. Noonan worried that the deadline in the bill for that report – Nov. 30 – would be tough to meet.
Noonan told the committee that he supported the intent of the bill, which was to keep the public more informed of the agency’s work with bears, but he wanted to be cautious with the information on relocated bears because it could be used inappropriately.
“We do want public safety issues to be addressed,” he said. “We’re most concerned about the information on the radio transmitters as well as the movement information being used in a way that’s unethical for wildlife management.”
However, the more information the public has about grizzly bear movements and locations the better informed they can be when they are working and recreating in bear country, Barrett said.
On Tuesday, SB 108 passed out of the Senate on a 47-3 vote and is now headed to a House committee. SB 143 is in the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee awaiting executive action. SB 142 passed out of the Senate’s Natural Resources committee Monday on a 10-4 vote and should have its second reading on the floor of the senate this week.