Over 200 years ago, when Lewis and Clark were forging a trail through the unchartered west, grizzly bears roamed much of the area. Originally a plains animal, biologists estimate somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 grizzly bears roamed from Alaska to Mexico at the turn of the 19th century.
Westward expansion did come at a cost to the giant bruins. By 1975, the population had plummeted and the grizzly bear was listed as “threatened” on the endangered species list. Ever since then, grizzly bears have had an on-again, off-again relationship with the endangered species list. As of 2018, a U.S. District Judge once again put grizzlies on the list.
Grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states are heavily concentrated in two major areas: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), a roughly 34,373 square mile swath of land surrounding Yellowstone National Park, and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), which encompasses 8,900 square miles around Glacier National Park.
In short, most grizzly bears in the lower 48 call Montana home.
Figures estimate there are 718 grizzly bears in the GYE and about 1,029 in the NCDE, as of 2018. It seems now that the pendulum has swung, and the expansion of grizzly bears has come at a cost to Montanans, especially those who partake in animal agriculture.
Heath Martinell, a generational rancher who raises cattle on his family’s land about 50 miles south of Dillon, Mont., also summers his cattle in the picturesque Centennial Valley, which lies in the heart of the GYE. As a steward to land so close to Yellowstone National Park, Martinell grew up aware that grizzly bears could be in the area, but it wasn’t until recently they became a concern.
“We have not always had issues with grizzlies. Really, it’s just been in the last seven or eight years we have felt the effects of bear losses,” he said.
In the beginning, Martinell admits he wasn’t even exactly sure what he was dealing with. In the fall when the Martinell family gathered to wean, they would be short calves, and then a few suspicious carcasses appeared, which they were later able to recognize as being killed by grizzlies.
The Martinell family is a part of the Centennial Valley Association (CVA), a collaborative organization that joins ranchers, landowners and conservationist in the area together. In an effort to reduce wildlife/livestock conflicts, the CVA received a grant to initiate a range rider program in 2014. One of the major duties of the range riders are to scour the landscape in search of carcasses. Martinell explains, finding carcasses in a timely manner so they can be reported to the Montana Livestock Loss Board before they are too degraded, is crucial.
Bear activity in the Centennial Valley is usually at its peak in the late summer or early fall. Given that knowledge, the Martinells made the decision to move their weaning up a month to about the 20thof September. Moving weaning, in combination with the extra set of eyes provided by the range rider program, the Martinells have been able to mitigate many of the losses due to grizzly bears.
It is not a fix all, Martinell admits. The physical death losses may be less, but cattle are still uncomfortable in certain parts of the range, and then there is the human safety risk.
“Ranching with grizzly bears is definitely changing the way you think. Now I wonder, do I really want to send my 10-year-old over to gather the next draw alone,” Martinell pointed out.
Martinell is not alone in his experiences with grizzlies. As the bears are spilling out of recovery zones more and more, people and livestock are feeling threatened. In April 2019, Montana Governor Steve Bullock solicited applications for a Grizzly Bear Advisory Council. Only 18 people were selected to serve out of a pool of 150 applicants. Martinell was one of those selected.
“Grizzly bear management is going to affect how we run our family ranch in the future,” Martinell said of the reason he chose to apply for the council.
Martinell joins a cross-section of members representing a wide range of interests, from agriculturalists to conversationalists, and everything in between. Despite differing opinions, all council members share a common goal. They plan to present Governor Bullock with a grizzly bear management recommendation by the end of August 2020.
“I’m really encouraged by the attitude shared by those on the council. It gives me hope to know we can come up with a plan,” Martinell stated.
Coming up with a grizzly bear management plan is a daunting task, but critical nonetheless. Keeping broad objectives in mind, the council must maintain and enhance human safety, ensure a healthy grizzly bear population and improve response to grizzly bear attacks, all while continuing outreach and communication among interested parties. The council will meet a total of eight times before their August deadline.
Grizzly bears play an integral part of the Montana ecosystem, but it can’t be denied, the landscape of the west is changing. Even so, a healthy equilibrium must be reached so man and beast can co-habitat comfortably for generations to come.