FAIRFIELD — In Fairfield on Thursday, Governor Greg Gianforte took part in a forum to discuss the growing conflict with grizzly bears. State officials and local ranchers offered several different ideas and shared their experiences, and everyone agreed that something needs to change.
“It’s like Jurassic Park out here,” said rancher Tracie Roeder, who lives near Fairfield. “You never know where the bears are going to pop up. We’ve had bears on the high school football field, and on the courthouse lawn. Two weeks ago, one walked right through the town of Fairfield, two blocks from here.”
Seeing grizzly bears east of the Rocky Mountain Front is common occurrence, but over the past few years the frequency has increased. Roeder and her family lost several head to grizzly bears and now herd their ewes and rams 155 miles east to Utica every summer.
“It just it's that kind of thing that has changed our lives. And we personally herd our sheep. There is no herder hired. So as a family, we do that,” she said. “Two years ago I spent 30 days herding sheep, which I love. It's great. It's a good life, but we have gone to extremes to make this work for us.”
Ranchers, producers and residents in the area near the Rocky Mountain Front see an alarming increase in predations and bear sightings. The Gianforte administration has pushed for de-listing, but it’s not imminent. So the goal is to get more tools to local wildlife officials to help with management.
“We need more boots on the ground to react sooner, and to react appropriately to the conditions we see on the ground every day,” said Gary Betellotti, the Montana Fish Wildlife, and Parks supervisor for Region 4. “We’ve seen bears in areas where they haven't been seen for a hundred years, all of that is contributing to the potential for a serious issue. Second thing is we’d like the US Fish and Wildlife Service to provide us with some relief so that we can react differently, where a lethal removal is something we can do without too much question if we see that as the right approach.”
The state believes the best way to improve management without running afoul of the Endangered Species Act, is to approach it from a public safety standpoint and be proactive. Attacks are rare, but with more bears in populated areas they only stand to increase - and that’s a red line for the Gianforte administration.
“We need to maintain a healthy population to meet the objectives, because we don't want to get back in the situation where they're again endangered,” Gianforte said. “But we need to put more tools in the box and in particular we need to deal with these bears that have become habituated to town, to grain bins that are putting our communities at risk.”
In 2018, the Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission approved a population objective for the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, to maintain above 800 bears with 90% certainty. The estimated number of bears in the NCDE today is around 1,100.
“It goes back to the original intent of the Endangered Species Act. It was to bring back species like this. Well, we've done that we've been successful,” Bertellotti said. “It’s a success story. But with that success story comes a time to bring about change so that we can manage it. And that's not where we're at with because the grizzly bears are still listed.”
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