Some Montana ranchers learning to live with grizzly bears
September 4, 2016
The Blackfoot Valley's first recorded grizzly bear predation case in more than 50 years caught more than the livestock slightly off guard.
It was 1998 when two calves were killed within a week in the calving pen near Wayne Slaght's family home. Slaght manages the Two Creek Ranch near Ovando, Montana, 50 miles east of Missoula.
"We hadn't been around grizzlies; we didn't know they were even on us until then," Slaght said. "We were unfortunately very naïve."
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks agents set a trap and shortly thereafter captured a grizzly. It was not the culprit. They set another snare, captured another grizzly. It was also not the culprit. The third bear they captured was proven to be the sow that had killed the livestock.
"That really alerted us to – holy smokes! – not only do we have grizzly bears here, we have a lot more of them than we ever thought," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services' Greg Neudecker said. Neudecker has worked in the Blackfoot Valley for more than 25 years, first as a USFWS on the ground wildlife biologist and now as the state coordinator for its private lands program.
Then, in 2001, a hunter on the neighboring Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area was killed by a grizzly bear as he field-dressed an elk.
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"Things got intense at that point, as you can imagine," Randy Gazda said. "The conflict became very real on a new level and the Challenge got much more involved at that point."
Gazda works under the Partners for Fish and Wildlife for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. He also serves as the chairman of the Blackfoot Challenge's Wildlife Committee (see sidebar on Blackfoot Challenge).
BEARS IN THE BLACKFOOT
Today, Montana Fish and Wildlife grizzly bear biologist Jamie Jonkel said they estimate a population of around 1,000 grizzly bears roam the Rocky Mountain Front, with 50 to 60 resident bears on the south end of the Blackfoot Valley. He's been working in the area since the grizzlies showed up in the late 90s.
He says the population is steadily growing at a rate of 3-4 percent each year.
"That's 30-40 bears each year that are pushing out, looking for territory," Gazda said. "If you're wondering why they're showing up to the south, or pushing way to the east where they haven't dealt with bears before, that's why."
"This summer, we've been getting droves of verified reports of grizzlies all over the Boulder country to the south; we actually had a grizzly show up down in Big Hole this June," Jonkel said. That's 100-150 miles south of the Blackfoot Valley.
150 miles to the northeast, ranchers have been faced with new grizzly conflicts in Montana's Sweet Grass Hills this summer. In early August, 13 sheep were confirmed killed by grizzlies in the first recorded depredation in that area.
"The same stuff that started occurring here when I first started my job here is now happening all over again to the south and on the Eastern Front," Jonkel said.
A HOW-TO ON LIVING WITH BEARS
The first thing the Two Creek Ranch team did after that loss was build a six-wire, 42-inch electric fence around their 250-acre calving lot. In later years, they added 150 acres to that fenced-in calving space for pairs, and two other fields.
"What we've found is, it doesn't take much electricity to deter a grizzly bear," Wayne Slaght said. Those fencing projects were funded under a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Defenders of Wildlife. It was the first grizzly bear fence installed in the Blackfoot Valley, and today a dozen other ranches have followed suit. The area now has more than 12 miles of grizzly-deterring electric fence in use on ranches.
Then, the Blackfoot Challenge team started mapping reported grizzly bear conflicts and seeking input from ranchers about what they might have on their property for attractants. Ranchers formed a landowner advisory committee under the Blackfoot Challenge to consult with agencies and conservation groups on their findings.
In 2003, the group spearheaded a watershed-wide program to address issues like bee yards, uncontained garbage, grain and mineral licks, bird feeders and bone yards.
"Bears are very food-driven; that should not come as a surprise," Gazda said. "So if we work to remove those sources, we'll begin to alleviate some of those conflicts."
They found that livestock loss bone pits tended to be located near calving lots.
"Bears quickly found those areas and were feeding there, which created huge opportunities for conflict," Gazda said.
Knowing carcasses and bone pits were prime catalysts for conflict, the landowner-led Blackfoot Challenge group found a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service truck and hired a local driver to begin the valley's first carcass pickup program to remove livestock losses from the landscape.
"So we have a truck with government plates and a government sticker on it coming into ranch yards… you can imagine, it took a while to catch on that this was an OK thing," Gazda said.
But, with a local driver and assurance that pick-ups were not reported individually, the program began to grow in numbers and success. The Montana Department of Transportation provided a compost site, and the truck runs twice a week for free pickups.
In 2003, 63 livestock carcasses were picked up in the mid-February to mid-May removal season. By 2004, that number grew to 250 and has since averaged just under 300 carcasses each year from more than 90 percent of the active ranches in the Blackfoot, Neudecker said.
They've also turned a careful eye to protecting other potential grizzly food sources.
After a bear tore a door off its hinges to access grain and mineral stored in a wooden shed near their house, the Two Creek Ranch partnered with agencies again to help partially fund the purchase of two ocean-cargo containers for storage.
"It's important for people to know there are programs, grants, partnerships out there to help them financially deal with these issues," Slaght said. "We have to use these tools to protect our livestock and keep our families safe."
But the most valuable tool to living and ranching with grizzly bears comes down to frequent, open and honest communication, Slaght said – communication between ranchers, between agencies, and between ranchers and agencies.
The Blackfoot Challenge-hired range rider/wildlife technician has made a big difference in those efforts, Slaght said. Eric Graham monitors predator movements through tracking collars, trail cameras and personal reports and issues and distributes public grizzly bear/wolf reports about every other month to keep all interested parties in the loop on where the grizzlies and wolves are in the valley.
"The range-riding guys have helped tremendously," Slaght said. "They communicate with us before we have to go asking. That transparency is so important."
PEOPLE AND PREDATORS
When depredation conflicts arise, it's not just the new animal ranchers have to learn to deal with. A myriad of federal and state government agency representatives, environmental and wildlife interests, media and non-ranching neighbors converge in a situation where fear and frustration are running high. Physical and financial loss and conflicting passions add fuel to the fire. Personality conflicts can cause more heartache and high blood pressure than the actual predation.
"I'll tell you… those first five years were pretty tough," Jonkel said. All invested parties had to learn to work with the people first, then address the predators together, the ranchers and wildlife agents agreed.
"The most important thing we've learned here is, how to get along with people and work together and communicate," Slaght said. "You can try all you want, but you're not going to tell a bear what to do. We can't work with the bears. We can only work with the people."
More than a decade later, their efforts are seemingly paying off. In 2003, the USFW recorded 77 grizzly bear conflicts in the Blackfoot Valley that were related to agriculture. Over the past ten years, conflicts have averaged around 12 per year.
The Slaghts haven't experienced a grizzly-caused livestock loss since they completed the additional electric fencing in the early 2000s, despite the fact that throughout the years, they've identified at least a dozen bears living on the ranch at a time.
"So, conflicts have gone down while bear numbers have gone up – that's our metric for success here," Gazda said.
"It's not easy. It's not pretty," Neudecker said. "It's just that everyone here was willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work to deal with these tough issues together."
Slaght pointed out that just because they've gotten more used to dealing with grizzlies doesn't mean they're any more comfortable with them.
"We talk so nonchalant about these grizzly bears now, like it's just another day in the life, which it is, but that doesn't mean it's easy," Slaght said. "It's a hassle, it's time-consuming, and it can be costly."
But, he added, if ranchers expect wildlife advocates to value livestock and agriculture production on the landscape, ranchers must learn to value wildlife – including predators – as a part of the landscape, too.
"I've been on this ranch my whole life. I love it, and we're here to improve the land and take care of the livestock and care for this entire landscape," Slaght said. "We don't want these bears; we didn't ask for these bears. But they're here. So we have to work together to deal with them." F