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Tribal leaders to state council: Revere, respect neighboring grizzly bears

Posted at 3:31 PM, Dec 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-06 17:31:56-05

Tribal leaders shared their philosophy for living with grizzly bears with a citizens’ group tasked with trying to help all Montanans do the same. But adopting tribal attitudes may not be a tool that works for some.

Meeting at the University of Montana on Wednesday, Gov. Steve Bullock’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council started its third meeting of the year hearing from grizzly bear specialists from the Blackfeet Nation and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Grizzly bears of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem have been expanding into both reservations, and yet, people who live on the reservations are more tolerant of bears on their property than others, according to the panel.

The resulting discussion illustrated the contrast between regions east and west of the Continental Divide and between Native American culture and that of other Montana landowners.

On either side of the Continental Divide, human population growth is vastly different. The west side has experienced rapid growth, while the east side has seen less, although a few more houses are popping up in the foothills. So suburban bear situations end up being different from rural ones.

The Blackfeet Reservation is the one place that’s filling up with each generation, said Gerald “Buzz” Cobell, Blackfeet Nation Fish and Wildlife director, leaving less room for bears.

Plus, each summer brings a temporary population surge as millions of tourists pass through Glacier National Park, leaving behind more garbage than the reservation can deal with. So the Blackfeet Nation is struggling to dispose of waste properly before bears get into it and become habituated.

But the Front is still mainly ranching country that hadn’t seen grizzly bears for a century until the past decade. Blackfeet conflict manager Cassie Powell said the human population of more than 10,000 people is dwarfed by the more than 66,000 cows living on the 1.5 million acre reservation.

So some say that grizzly bears get into depredation trouble more on the east side, while bears on the west side may have had to learn to steer clear of people, so they stay out of trouble.

CSKT wildlife manager Dale Becker said managers in the Mission Valley dealt with problem bears in the ‘80s by getting rid of them.

“I have no way of knowing. But I wonder if through survival of the fittest, these bears aren’t really adapted to seeking out livestock. So we don’t deal with that 20-25 years later,” Becker said. “Given the intense learning process that these females impart upon their cubs, it seems logical to me.”

But the real difference comes down the fact that Native Americans, regardless of tribe, revere bears and wildlife in general. So the anger and frustration expressed by some Montana ranchers doesn’t arise.

Chief Earl Old Person had told Cobell an old story about a warrior who was saved by a bear. Now Cobell is getting more calls from Blackfeet residents with bear problems, but they want managers to move the bears, not kill them.

“To the Blackfeet, our stories are real,” Cobell said. “That’s why the Blackfeet revere the bear. The bear is our brother.”

That feeling is even stronger on the Flathead Reservation on the west side of the Divide.

Becker explained that over the years, the CSKT tribal council has repeatedly made decisions to protect the grizzly bear, from banning sport hunting to creating the Mission Mountain Wilderness, protecting surrounding habitat and buying even more.

Stacy Courville said that during his 24 years as a CSKT bear specialist, no child has been mauled even though “grizzlies in the Mission Valley own our valley at night.” Hundreds of bird hunters regularly take advantage of the wetlands and riparian areas that bears inhabit but only three have been mauled. More bears have started moving west of Highway 93, drawn mainly by recently added corn fields, but even there, people are adjusting.

“We have high densities of grizzly bears living in close proximity to people on a day-to-day basis all season long,” Courville said. “Bears avoid people just fine.”

That led to council members repeatedly asking the tribal panelists how other Montanans could achieve the same level of tolerance for grizzly bears as found on the reservations.

“Every bear specialist in the state, whether they’re tribal or Fish, Wildlife & Parks, that’s one of their goals: tolerance,” Courville said. “I don’t know how you get there. But part of that is taught. It’s taught from your parents.”

Council member Trina Jo Bradley of Valier said people could have tolerance for grizzly bears only if they can afford to ignore livestock losses. Her frustration was clear as she asked the tribal members to explain how they compensate for that.

“We can’t afford to be that tolerant where we live,” Bradley said.

But council member Gregory Schock, who just retired from being a dairy farmer in the Mission Valley, said he wasn’t rich but he tolerated grizzly bears and put in a lot of calls to Courville.

“We had 18 bears in a corn field. You can’t trap all 18 of them. I didn’t have any option except to be tolerant,” Schock said.

The exchange give a preview of discussions to come as the 18-member council tries to develop recommendations by August for how the state will coexist with grizzly bears into the future, whether they remain on the Endangered Species list or not.

If anything, the council is learning that “one shoe is not going to fit Montana,” as council member Darrin Boss put it. Each bear, person and location is different.

Cobell said Blackfeet rancher Skippy Matt is a good example of tolerance. Bear specialist Dan Carney has removed 23 bears from Matt’s ranch over the years, but this year, Matt still lost one cow to a bear and his daughter lost a colt to a mountain lion.

“But he doesn’t hate bears. He doesn’t hate mountain lions,” Cobell said. “He just has lived with them. He lives in some beautiful country, and the bears and mountain lions and wolves come with it.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at .