Grizzly council needs more public input

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The next seven months will prove challenging for the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council as the 18-member team mulls over what recommendations to provide Gov. Steve Bullock regarding the long-term management of the state’s recovering grizzly bear population.

As the threatened species makes a comeback and Montana’s population simultaneously expands farther into what was once solely the bears’ territory, the growth on both sides has led to a noticeable increase in human-bear conflicts. And during a two-day gathering in Polson last week, researchers made it clear these conflicts will only become more common.

One management specialist told the council “we need recommendations on what to do with these types of bears and we need them soon.” By “these types,” experts are referring to bears that have managed to find themselves in the middle of society, leaving wildlife managers to ponder whether the animal should be relocated or removed (euthanized).

One employee with Fish, Wildlife and Parks summed up the duties of the council well, saying “you all are charged not with deciding whether a bear should be somewhere, but how we manage bears when they are in those spaces.”

The meeting in Polson marked the fourth public gathering for the council and the August deadline for providing recommendations is looming large at this point.

While the council appears to be making progress, that progress is slow. This is due in part to the group’s diversity, which is ultimately something to be celebrated, but appears to have come with its own set of challenges.

The members come from backgrounds in agriculture, wildlife research, logging, ranching, education and more, and they have all come to the table with fairly fortified opinions on how to handle grizzlies. Those opinions vary widely on everything from how to define “conflict,” to whether bears should be introduced to areas they haven’t occupied in decades.

These concepts will be difficult to condense into concrete recommendations unless the council moves forward with organized and open communication.

Part of that communication must also include more input from the general public — something that has been acknowledged by many of the council members.

At the meeting in Polson, only a handful of Montanans were present and the agenda and discussion topics unfolded in a way that was difficult to follow. Several attendees mentioned feeling “left behind” during the conversations. Other attendees said they were concerned the council lacked a collective vision.

With grizzly bears being such a hot-button issue in Montana, the council and state agencies must exhaust their efforts to engage the public in an effective manner. The next public meeting is at the end of February in Libby and we encourage people to show up, meet the council, and participate in forming these recommendations that could affect residents and wildlife across Montana for years to come.

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