Grizzlies Have Recovered, Officials Say; Now Montanans Have To Get Along With Them A healthy population of grizzlies in and around Glacier National Park means the bear may come off the endangered species list. But more bears mean more confrontations with humans.
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Grizzlies Have Recovered, Officials Say; Now Montanans Have To Get Along With Them

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Grizzlies Have Recovered, Officials Say; Now Montanans Have To Get Along With Them

Grizzlies Have Recovered, Officials Say; Now Montanans Have To Get Along With Them

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This summer, the Trump administration decided to remove Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears. They spent more than four decades on the threatened list, and now the government says they are safe. The Montana state government wants to take an even larger population of grizzlies off the list, saying they cause huge amounts of damage to crops and livestock. Montana Public Radio's Nick Mott has this snapshot of life in grizzly country.

NICK MOTT, BYLINE: Kari Eneas is standing in the back of a pickup truck stirring a curdling stew of severed deer legs in a big, red plastic bucket.

KARI ENEAS: Well, I've been tracking the stages of the bait barrel and, you know, there was one stage that I deemed sulfurous. And I think this has kind of got a hint of old shoe. (Laughter).

MOTT: Eneas is a wildlife biologist on the Flathead Reservation in Northwest Montana, and she's re-baiting a grizzly trap. She fishes a smelly roadkill leg out of the barrel and places it in a giant metal cylinder. Stinky sneaker to us, this odor signals a tasty treat to a grizzly. Eneas hopes a bear will crawl in here to get its snack, and then Eneas and her co-workers will sedate the grizzly, slip a high-tech collar over its neck and let it go.

ENEAS: With the collar data, we can get GPS locations.

MOTT: With this data, biologists can start to figure out where the bears are crossing roads and why more bears than ever being killed by vehicles. In a normal year in this part of Montana, there's three bear deaths on roads. This year, there's already been 10 killed and another four cubs euthanized or relocated.

HILARY COOLEY: It's really not that unexpected.

MOTT: Hilary Cooley is the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

COOLEY: Because our distribution is expanding, the numbers of bears is growing, we would expect mortalities to grow in proportion to that, too.

MOTT: There are about a thousand bears here in the Northern Continental Divide area around Glacier National Park, and it's the largest grizzly population in the Lower 48. The animal's been federally protected since 1975. But Cooley says the population here is healthy and strong, and she expects a push to remove those protections by the end of the year. That will likely result in another round of lawsuits against the government claiming these bears still need protections. Still, Cooley and others believe state management instead of federal is best suited to mitigate conflicts as the bears' range expands.

COOLEY: More and more farmers and producers are experiencing bears that they haven't been for many years.

MOTT: Lisa Schmidt is a rancher in the plains east of Montana's Rocky Mountains, and she's seen what grizzlies can do.

LISA SCHMIDT: I walked down to the corral about 5:00 in the morning, and there were dead sheep laying everywhere.

MOTT: To bears, sheep are like little potato chips dotting the plains. Last year, a Montana board that compensates ranchers who lose animals to large predators doled out more money than they ever have for grizzly kills. The land around Schmidt's ranch is all agriculture - fields and prairie - and bears love it. They rip the doors off enormous grain bins. They'll even take chunks out of cornfields. A little over a year ago, another grizzly showed up right outside Schmidt's front door. She scared the bear off, but the incident is remembered well. Here's Schmidt's daughter, Abby Hutton.

ABBY HUTTON: That was really scary for me, and I didn't like that.

SCHMIDT: Since then she doesn't want to camp, she doesn't want to be outside. That's what makes me mad, is when my daughter's scared to go outside because there's too many bears wandering around.

MOTT: She thinks, if delisted, more strict management of the grizzly population, including limited hunting, can give her some peace of mind. But how that delisting decision comes about may rest in the hands of the federal judge in Missoula deciding the fate of Yellowstone grizzlies. Last Saturday, a grizzly hunt was slated to begin in Idaho and Wyoming, but now that's been put on hold while the judge weighs both sides.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Mott in Missoula.

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