Prairie Bears

Spring has sprung, and with the scent of fresh, green grass and the beautiful song of the meadowlark comes the emergence of grizzlies from their dens, and their annual trip from the mountains to the prairie.

Yesterday I traveled to Kalispell to attend the Spring Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem Committee Meeting, where Ken McDonald and Gary Bertellotti talked about FWP’s plans to manage “Region 4 Prairie Zone 3.”

Keep in mind that until the NCDE Conservation Strategy is in place, which would go into effect AFTER the grizzlies are removed from the Endangered Species List, Zone 3 doesn’t actually exist, nor do Zones 1 and 2. HOWEVER, for the sake of argument, its nice to be able to look at a map and see the area these people are talking about.

According to the proposed NCDE Conservation Strategy, Prairie Zone 3 begins on the east side of Highway 89, goes north to the Canadian border, east to Havre and Fort Benton, and south to Big Timber. That’s an area of 12,158,183 acres of private and public land.

ncde zones map

According to the Conservation Strategy,  “Management Zone 3 primarily consists of areas where grizzly bears do not have enough suitable habitat for long-term survival and occupancy. Grizzly bear occupancy will not be actively discouraged. Grizzly bears will not be captured and removed just because they occur on Zone 3, nor will they be captured and removed from Zone 3 unless there are conflicts that can only be resolved by capture and relocation or removal of the offending bear.”

Well. Sounds like we’re rolling out the welcome mat for the grizzlies on millions of acres of farm and ranch land, not to mention all the towns and cities these bears have in their paths.

Valier, Montana is one of those towns in Zone 3 – 40 miles from the “Front,” and very much a prairie town. The reports of bear sightings in town limits last year, coupled with the urging of some very concerned townspeople, motivated Region 4 FWP to establish a phone tree for the town of Valier and the surrounding area. On Monday, April 24, 2017, just two days ago, the first report came in – a sow and THREE cubs strolling down main street at 2:30 a.m. A call was sent out on the town phone tree at 2 p.m. the following afternoon. Effective? No.

FWP was also asked to post Bear Aware signs at the Valier Lake Frances Campground at the beginning of summer. The signs were finally put up in September, but at least the campers will finally be aware that there is a significant amount of bear activity at the lake.

“We try to do more proactive, preventative things,” Gary Bertellotti said. “But conflicts are going to happen.”

So what is FWP doing in 2017 to further conflict prevention in Zone 3? According to Ken McDonald, FWP is taking a “three-pronged approach.”

The first step in prevention is the addition of another bear specialist to be based in Conrad. Unfortunately, the position is just this week being posted, and it will take AT LEAST a month to finish the hiring process, which means our second bear specialist will not be established until the middle to end of May, three full months AFTER the bears have emerged.

According to McDonald, this specialist will focus on conflict prevention and resolution strictly in Zone 3, covering “everything east of Highway 89 and north of Highway 200.

The second step in the prevention planning is the formation of a carcass removal program. FWP, USFWS, Montana Stockgrowers Association and Montana Outdoor Legacy Foundation have been working together this spring to remove carcasses from farms and ranches in an effort to keep bear attractants to a minimum. Due to many government regulations the program has been off to a rocky start, but I’m hopeful that they get the kinks worked out soon and can do some good for the farms and ranches in Zone 3.

According to McDonald, the third step in helping Zone 3 is a quick and aggressive response by FWP staff to conflict reports. Now, I live in Zone 1, so I’m basically smothered when it comes to bears, as we have about a 1:20 bear to cow ratio here. “Quick and agressive” is not the way anyone on the Front would describe the way FWP responds to any type of call.

“Hopefully our response time drops considerably with the new bear specialist,” Bertellotti said.

Hopefully.

Along with the “three-pronged approach,” FWP is also going to continue to hold educational programs, and has received a grant from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee to visit schools in many towns in Zone 3 this spring, which I think is an amazing idea.

Berellotti talked about sharing information with the public, and making sure everyone knows what resources are available, such as electric fencing and bear proof garbage containers.

That’s all great and good, but knowing there are resources available but not having access to them is not helpful, and that is the dilemma that many people on the Front and in Zone 3 are facing.

Due to government bureaucracy,  bear specialist Mike Madel does not have a tech yet, and we’re already two months into “bear season.” I requested a fence for my daughter’s 4-H lambs at the end of March, and I’m still waiting. We have bears going through here several times a week, and its only a matter of time before they discover the delicious little lambchops.

Maybe instead of spending all this money on grizzly family trees and other ridiculous research, FWP and USFWS should put a little more funding into boots on the ground to prevent conflicts from ever happening, and then they wouldn’t have to spend so much time responding to calls about livestock depredation and destruction of property.

Just my two cents.

Click  HERE to read the entire text of the proposed NCDE Conservation Strategy.

Until next time,

Trina Jo