When it comes to grizzly bears in Montana, hunting is more of a sociological and political tool rather than a biological one.
That was the takeaway of some Northwest bear experts who appeared before the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council this week as the council took on the issue of hunting.
“Whether or not there’s a hunting of grizzly bears really is a social and a value-driven issue,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks administrator Ken McDonald. “Biologically, it’s a management tool that’s available to us once bears are delisted. Whether we utilize that tool or not is a bigger question that the public generally needs to weigh in on.”
Created by Gov. Steve Bullock to provide recommendations on how the state should manage grizzly bears once they’re off the Endangered Species List, the council has been meeting almost monthly since October. Much of the time has been spent learning about several bear-related issues from genetics and connectivity to human conflict and population management. But like much of the state, the group has had to resort to online meetings over the past two months to carry out their discussions.
On Thursday, McDonald explained how Montana would have carried out a hunt in the Yellowstone region before a federal judge returned the bears to threatened status.
The three states surrounding Yellowstone National Park agreed to manage bears within the Yellowstone recovery area so the population wouldn’t drop below 674 bears. As the population rose above that number, there would be more bears to hunt. But the states would have to divvy up the allowable number of bears based upon their respective land in the recovery area.
That means Montana would get to hunt 34% of the excess bears.
“This is important because if all three states used the maximum mortality, we’d pub the population into a tailspin,” McDonald said.
In an example based on the 2017 grizzly bear population, Montanans could have hunted five bears in 2018, so FWP would have issued only five licenses for a hunt within the Yellowstone management area, and the hunt would be held in early spring and late fall when females with cubs would be more likely to be in their dens.
But FWP has yet to determine what would be allowed statewide once the bear is delisted, and that is what the council needs to consider.
One thing the council needs to keep in mind is that hunting wouldn’t likely reduce conflict, McDonald said.
“If you look at when most of the conflicts occur versus when these (hunting) seasons would occur, there’s probably a limited opportunity for hunting to address these conflicts directly,” McDonald said. “And for the most part, we probably don’t want to go there. We need professionals like the Wildlife Services guys to get in there and take care of it and not rely on a hunter to maybe or maybe not take care of it.”
Large carnivore specialists Garth Mowat of the British Columbia Ministry seconded McDonald’s assessment. In British Columbia, livestock producers are not compensated for the loss of animals, so the only conflict would occur with people in more of a suburban setting where hunting would be dangerous. British Columbia ultimately did away with its bear hunt, which was tightly controlled to begin with.
Mowat said the way conflict is managed differs from the way a hunt is managed, and often, different bears are involved in each. Education is the best way to reduce conflict, Mowat said. Finally, conflict often doesn’t arise unless bears are hungry, such as coastal bears that have seen salmon runs disappear.
“Conflict is also a decision by the bear. Bears know when they’re in risky areas,” Mowat said. “Our officers commonly kill bears who are over 24 years old. Why all the sudden would they decide to get into conflict with a human? My point is those bears probably know they’re taking a risk, but they’re getting old and they’re unable to eat properly or catch food.”
Mowat said the British Columbia hunt didn’t regulate the population but hunters were killing only about 2% annually. He also didn’t find much evidence to indicate that hunting made bears more wary.
However, hunts in Alaska have been able to regulate populations in some regions, said Alaska Board of Game member Larry Van Daele. But that’s because healthy, connected habitat means Alaska has a thriving population of bears, around 140,000. So hunters can kill 1,500 bears year without endangering the population. In the interior of Alaska, hunters are allowed to kill one bear a year and some districts bump that up to two.
“We do manage bears by hunting. They can be managed if you do enough of it,” Van Daele said. “With low harvest rates, it’s hard to have an effect on populations.”
But he echoed the others when it comes to the ineffectiveness of hunts for conflict resolution, because they have to be targeted at specific bears and then it’s no longer fair-chase.
Alaska has an active education program to try to reduce human-bear conflict but provides no compensation for loss of livestock.
“If someone’s livestock is killed by a bear or a wolf, that’s just part of living up here,” Van Daele said.
With Montana’s relatively small bear populations – around 700 to 1,000 animals – some council members questioned the need for a hunt if it wouldn’t reduce conflict and wouldn’t be large enough for population control.
“So we’re not sure if populations can be controlled (with hunting),” said council member Robyn King. “Seems there are other opportunities that could be used without going into a hunting season, through Wildlife Services that could work with those population pieces.”
That’s basically what FWP is doing now, McDonald said. Just like in British Columbia, bears can managed without a hunt, however hunts could be used to keep bears out of areas of eastern Montana where they aren’t welcome, McDonald said.
Council member Caroline Byrd worried that the council would make a decision about hunting before knowing where grizzly bears might go or maybe not be able to go. If bears can’t move between the recovery areas, that could result in inbreeding.
“How are we going to look at hunting outside the (management areas)? Do we need to wait a bit? We have so many questions in play,” Byrd said.
McDonald said those were the questions the council needed to answer about statewide management. If the council doesn’t, the state Legislature might, McDonald said.
“If we’re not addressing issues or if the Legislature doesn’t think we’re addressing them well, it could get legislated. So that’s another concern,” McDonald said. “We gotta think about what are the consequences of different decisions as well from a political standpoint. Which nobody likes to admit but it’s a reality that we gotta deal with.”
The council will meet again on April 17.
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