The Grizzly Bears Awake

by Katie Schrock

The last ten to fifteen years has seen an upswing trend for Montana’s big game predators of wolves, mountain lions and, especially, the grizzly bear.  Hunted to near extinction between 1850 and 1920, grizzlies were eliminated from 95 percent of their original range, which led to their listing as threatened on the Endangered Species Act in 1975.  Their return in full force to the lower 48 states could be marked as a success story that is now causing ranchers to live in constant worry for the safety of their personnel and stock.

Kyle VandenBos has been ranching with his family near Valier, Montana, since the late 1970’s.  He’s had grizzly bears not only kill cows and calves but also stroll through his backyard every year since moving to his new home above the farm four years ago.

“Two weeks ago, my girlfriend was mowing the lawn by the grain bin and there was a bear, not one hundred yards from her,” VandenBos said. During an April seed cleaning, some seed escaped and laid next to the bin where the grizzly bear was enjoying a feast, not concerned about the nearby human presence, he explained.

Growing confidence of bears and a lack of respect for humans has caused more and more ranchers to become concerned.  Local livestock groups have been addressing these challenges as the trend dramatically continues to increase in grizzly bear populations.  Montana is now home to the second-highest population of grizzly bears in the lower 48.

George Edwards, executive director for the State Livestock Loss Office, explained how dramatically depredation numbers have increased over the past year.  So far this year they have paid for 37 head of cattle, 30 head of sheep and 14 head of goats in probable and confirmed grizzly bear kills, when compared to 22 head of cattle, 9 head of sheep and 6 head of goats last year.  Data is hard to keep accurate, however, as ranchers lead busy lives which results in paperwork being a few weeks or even a few months delayed.  Confirmed kills are not always found in time or at all and don’t contribute to the rising number of depredations.

While VandenBos finds frustrations in protecting his stock, family and property, the solution is a heavy topic of discussion with local livestock associations.  Strict protections on the grizzly bear immensely limit ranchers, the state and federal Fish and Wildlife agencies and government trappers.

“Even if you catch a bear in the act of killing one of your animals, you can’t shoot them,” VandenBos said with exasperation.

This frustration only mounted when the government trapper flew a four-mile radius over his farm, getting a head count of 30 grizzly bears.  Bears that the family sees while doing daily chores and hear roaring in the forests at dusk — bears that aren’t afraid of humans.

While the State Livestock Office has a list of guidelines to deter grizzly bears such as non-projectile auditory deterrents, visual stimuli deterrents, vehicle threat pressure, water, and dogs, there isn’t a tried and true method of warding off the predator.

“What works for one ranch, might not work for another ranch or even your neighbor,” Edwards said.

Some ranchers have taken to electric fencing and have seen success but there’s no guarantee that it will work on other bears.

While there has been no change to the current status of the grizzly bear on the Endangered Species list, there has been legislative change in the form of livestock loss payout.  Senate Bill 133, passed in the 2019 Montana legislature, is a revision of eligibility for livestock loss payments.  In order for the State Livestock Loss Board to issue a reimbursement for losses to an eligible livestock producer, the department of revenue must certify the livestock producer has paid per capita fees as required by 15-24-91.  If they have not paid their fees, they cannot be paid the claim.  There was also an increase in the budget for the livestock loss board from $200,000 to $300,00.

Livestock groups and associations continued conversation with the Montana Department of Fish & Wildlife, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife and other resource groups is imperative moving forward.  An increased trend in both population and depredations show that this is not an issue that will rectify itself, it will need management and input from all stakeholders.


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