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The Mountain West News Bureau is a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Why A Montana Bill Making It Easier To Kill Grizzly Bears Could Backfire

A grizzly bear in Glacier National Park
A grizzly bear in Glacier National Park

Tom Kuka has been ranching on the Blackfeet Reservation for nearly 30 years. His ranch is about 20 miles east of the Rocky Mountain Front, where jagged peaks meet sprawling prairie. And Kuka, like many on the front, unwillingly shares his ranch with grizzly bears.

"You just have to be aware all the time," Kuka said. "I've run into sows and cubs, but they've seen me first, but one day it might not be that way."

He worries for the safety of himself, his family and his livelihood. Kuka said he loses about 15 calves every year to grizzlies, a loss he estimates to be worth between $12,000 and $15,000.

Ranchers can be compensated for killed livestock, but only if they can prove a grizzly was the culprit. Of last year's killed calves, Kuka said he found only one carcass.

"They eat the calf up so bad that you never do find it," he said.

There were thought to be between 700 and 800 grizzlies in the lower 48 states when the bear was listed as endangered in 1975. Now, there are almost twice that, with more than 1,000 of those grizzlies living in Northwest Montana alone. Kuka is among a growing group of ranchers who argue something needs to be done to keep the population in check.

"It would be great to hunt them just to get the fear back into them," Kuka said. "There is no fear in the bear at all anymore."

The Montana Legislature has passed a bill that would loosen regulations around killing grizzlies in Montana, and it's headed to the governor's desk.

"They are a dangerous animal, they are an apex predator," said Republican Sen. Bruce Gillespie, who sponsored the bill. "They are 600 to 800 pounds when they are mature. They are all muscle, they got long four-inch claws and very sharp teeth. A human being don't really stand much of a chance. You're going to get beat up pretty bad if not killed." 

It's already legal in Montana to kill a grizzly in self-defense or if the bear is "in the act" of killing livestock. Gillespie's bill would allow a grizzly to be harmed or killed if a bear is "threatening" livestock. Although grizzlies rarely attack humans, Gillespie said he has heard concerns similar to Kuka's echoed along the Rocky Mountain Front. 

"We need to be able to defend our livestock, our livelihood, our friends, our kids, our parents, whatever. This thing is totally idiotic the way it is right now," Gillespie said.

Under the federal Endangered Species Act, grizzlies can't be harmed or killed, regardless of what Montana law says. But Gillespie wants to send a message to federal officials.

"Basically, it is to put pressure on and say, 'Hey, you guys back there in D.C., wake up. You are living where you are nice and safe, but we're not,'" he said.

Chris Servheen led the grizzly bear recovery effort for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 35 years. He doesn't think the bill will send Gillespie's intended message.

For the bear to be delisted, Servheen said, adequate state measures have to be in place to protect them. Basically, the state needs to be able to show the feds that they can manage the species on its own.

"If that bill is passed it would prevent the consideration of delisting by the Fish and Wildlife Service because the state would no longer have the ability to regulate human-caused mortalities to grizzly bears," Servheen said.

In other words, the bill makes state management of grizzlies bears less likely, even as U.S. senators from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming propose removing federal protections for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Servheen believes FWS will eventually consider a proposal to delist the grizzly one recovery area at a time, but it's a heavily scrutinized process that takes time.

"That whole process takes three or four years and if it's going to be litigated – which is almost for sure given the current situation – then it's years away," Servheen said.

Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Gillespie's bill would also send Montanans a mixed message.

"They might not understand that while it's decriminalized to kill a grizzly bear in Montana, they could still be federally prosecuted," she said.

While grizzlies have made a tremendous recovery since being listed nearly 50 years ago, Zaccardi argues their populations are not quite resilient enough to hunt or be delisted, as failed delisting attempts in the past have shown.

"Taking a species off of the endangered species list needs to be based on science, not the wishes of the states or based on some state legislative bill that goes through," Zaccardi said.

In the meantime, Kuka, the rancher, hopes grizzlies will spare his calves.

"There is no stop to them," he said. "I don't think there is an end to it really. We just have to live with them until they figure out something to get them afraid of us again." 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

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