Victory in the Centennials

| February 13, 2014

Grizzly bear 726 remains missing, having disappeared high in the Centennial Mountains in fall 2012 on a chunk of land grazed by federally owned sheep. But conservationists are toasting a recent victory that's tied directly to the saga of 726 and could change how the U.S. Department of Agriculture's sheep experiment station uses the landscape west of Yellowstone National Park.

The USDA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached a legal settlement early this month with several environmental groups directing FWS to issue a new biological opinion on the sheep station's grazing activities by June 1. John Meyer with the Bozeman-based Cottonwood Environmental Law Center—one of the five plaintiffs—hopes that the subsequent analysis will finally reveal the impacts the sheep station could and is having on an expanding grizzly population.

Missoula Independent news

"I think any time you settle a case without having a judge get involved, it signifies that you had a very solid case," Meyer says. "In this case, with Grizzly 726 missing, the facts were very strong and I think the government probably saw the writing on the wall."

The settlement also forbids the sheep station from grazing on three high-elevation allotments in the Centennials until the biological opinion is complete. Grizzly 726 went missing on one of those allotments. Critics of the sheep station have repeatedly alleged that the operation has not been honest about how it deals with predators; the station itself insists it directs employees to use non-lethal means.

A nearly identical legal proceeding played out in 2007 when two environmental groups sued the USDA for having failed to assess the station's impacts at any point in its 100-year history. FWS finished that analysis in 2011. Ken Cole at the Western Watersheds Project—a plaintiff group in both cases—says he hopes the government considers the cumulative effect of grazing more "honestly" this time around.

Cottonwood continues to offer a $6,500 reward for information on 726, but Meyer isn't optimistic. He is, however, confident that the new settlement will add to the pressure on the sheep station to retire grazing on its Centennial allotments completely.

"They've settled two consecutive lawsuits, they've got a grizzly bear that's gone missing on their property, [and] every federal and state agency that's weighed in on this place has told them to find alternative grazing allotments," Meyer says. "You just have a cumulative pressure coming from virtually everybody that's concerned about grizzly bears saying, 'Find somewhere else to graze.'"


Comments (16)

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I think it's a good question, Other Nations, and I'm not sure how many sage grouse we need. The compromise that gives environmentalists 60% and companies 40% doesn't sound like a bad idea to me, not when the overwhelming majority of those in eastern Montana, in my opinion, are going to oppose that 1-mile buffer zone around nesting areas. Moving that from a mile to 0.6 miles is something that should be considered.

Several years ago on a Sunday a young boy went missing around Missoula. Lots of people went out and about looking, and one guy I remember from Al's and Vic's found the kid huddled in the forest somewhere.

He thought it'd be a good idea to grab a six-pack and head out to the hills. Maybe more people should do the same for wildlife if they're so important.

But they're not, are they? You don't see bears get a missing person's report and you don't see their face on a milk carton. How many of your friends are forgoing their pint glass for a chance to go out looking? Kind of puts it in perspective, huh?

When we let environmental issues and concerns blind us to serious problems that face us, and face those without a voice like so many environmental groups with deep pockets do, this becomes a serious issue. And then we have the hypocrisy to say these are the utmost on our radars. Yeah, right after American Idol.

I remember the crying women that use to call the USFWS offices in Helena over wolves when I was working. What did they hope to accomplish? Our lead biologist Ed Bangs made it a point that he was never to get those calls. I remember once I forwarded it to him and he got angry, had to storm out of the office for a double-shot of espresso.

In case you didn't know, he was probably the lead wolf biologist for re-introduction in the US. In other words, we was one that listened and made policy decisions. If that's the attitude he had toward this tears and fears attitude that hurts the environmental movement more than it helps, well, what does that tell all the rest of you crying over spilled milk or a missing bear?

What else are you going to do but sue, write public comments, and complain incessantly online? What other options do you have?

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Posted by Greg Strandberg on 02/19/2014 at 11:42 AM

"I'd rather represent people, not animals."
One might consider that he/she will be representing many people who care about animals, and who care about intact ecosystems. Animals don't vote, but their advocates do.

"If people in Missoula care so much about Grizzlies, how come 726 hasn't been found?"
A $6500 reward has been posted for a bear gone missing over a year ago 200 miles from Msla. What else can Missoulians do?--other than raise their voices by advocating for wildlife and habitat and voting for likeminded candidates.

It's disheartening to see candidates and politicians continue to make either/or dichotomies out of important issues--humans OR animals, grizzly recovery OR feeding kids, western MT vs. eastern MT, etc.

One more thought...sheep on the ground in eastern MT is an entirely different scenario than sheep on the ground in mountainous, high-elevation native griz habitat adjacent to Yellowstone. The point is, there are nuances to these arguments. (Then again, sheep on public land in eastern MT might be impacting sage grouse habitat; then the question becomes, "how many sage grouse do we need?!?")

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Posted by Other Nations on 02/19/2014 at 11:17 AM

You know, I'm real good at shooting myself in the foot and then sticking it in my mouth - look how many people like my comments here. If anyone wants more on how I feel about this, you can read it here:…

Posted by Greg Strandberg on 02/18/2014 at 12:52 AM

If people in Missoula care so much about Grizzlies, how come 726 hasn't been found?

I guess it's just like a lot of people in Missoula care about politics. They bitch and moan and yet I'm the only democrat in Missoula challenging another democrat in the primary. There is no republican in my district.

Few put their money where their mouth is. If you care so much about these issues, file to run for office, where maybe you can do something. You have until March 10, but I don't suspect I'll see your name or anyone else's new on the government website.

See, the people who care about Montana were down in that courthouse on January 9th to announce that we have the balls to get into this mess we call Montana politics. Keep arm-chairin' Mike.

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Posted by Greg Strandberg on 02/17/2014 at 11:43 PM

Alright, first things first, Gregory. I know this isn't the proper forum for this discussion because no one has yet said anything of substance, myself included. From the now 12 comments posted, we are no closer to solving the complexities of our wildlife policies. If you truly think this has been a productive, worthwhile conversation, I genuinely hope you aren't elected.

You say that government meetings are "probably" just preaching to the converted. Sounds like you haven't been to one, which is funny because government meetings on species like wolves and grizzlies tend to be fairly contentious in Montana. If you don't agree, I'm pretty sure the FWS has a couple hundred thousand public comments you can sort through when you can spare a moment. If you do have a genuine interest in Montana's wildlife policy, I highly recommend you attend one before you write them off.

Also, a sarcastic "good luck" to getting elected in Missoula on an anti-wildlife platform. There are a healthy number of Missoulians who live here because of the access they have to outdoor recreation, relatively pristine wilderness and opportunities to interact with wildlife that most other places don't have. In fact, the article that kicked-off this stimulating exchange is a follow-up on a piece the Indy ran early last summer. I can't imagine they would have printed the original feature as well as a follow-up if people in Missoula didn't care about grizzly bears.

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Posted by Michael J. Dax on 02/17/2014 at 11:33 PM

I'm sorry, but all 150 people in that legislature are representing Montana, and that means you. The choices they make and the decisions they hand down affect all of us. That's why this sage grouse might not be a big deal to most struggling families in Missoula, but to those in eastern Montana it's something.

I also think this is exactly the proper forum. This is where these debates are going to be happening more and more. The only people who know who read this are the Independent staff checking the analytics. I'm sure it's more than my site.

Mainly though, I just don't care. I'd rather represent people, not animals. I worked for USFWS for two years - I don't want to listen to anymore of that. Most Montana's feel the same. I doubt as well that there are any serious discussions there, probably just a lot of preachin' to the converted.

Hey, I could be wrong and often am, but when I'm knocking on doors, guess what, this isn't the issue they're talking about. They're talking about jobs and making a bit more so they don't have to start over from scratch the next month. To many of them the grizzly is just another animal sleeping out in the cold, a place they're trying mighty hard not to end up in as well.

To those with cushy jobs and secure finances, I'm sure this is a fun issue to kick about, perhaps giving a sense that they're helping things, maybe even making the world a better place for future generations. To those scraping by this isn't even on the radar and the time and attention it gets at the expense of problems that could mean sleeping in their coats or not is frankly an insult.

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Posted by Greg Strandberg on 02/17/2014 at 11:04 PM

First of all, at this point, the "many" reading this is probably just you and me, so the stakes are pretty low. Let's keep this in perspective.

Second, if you want my general thoughts on wildlife issues and the political culture of the American West, feel free to read my articles that have appeared in the Indy. If you are still curious, hang tight and read my forthcoming book on grizzly bear policy from the University of Nebraska Press.

And responding to your last comment, dialog is good, but this is not the proper forum to have a serious discussion about the efficacy of our wildlife policy and the future of Montana's economy. Attend a USFWS meeting or a F&G meeting or any of a number of meetings concerning wildlife policy that take place in Missoula on a weekly basis. Then you can have a real discussion.

Finally, I don't know if you need a lesson in geography or representative democracy. If Missoula elects you, you represent Missoula, which is not in Eastern Montana.

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Posted by Michael J. Dax on 02/17/2014 at 10:35 PM

Let's say I win this primary in June and head to the legislature next January. What do you want me to say to these people from Eastern Montana that could give a damn about grizzlies and just want to develop land. To them sheep on land is a good use for what's otherwise being wasted.

What do you want me to say to those folks, what's been repeated here? Boy, good luck with that. If this is the kind of arguments you're going to bring to Helena, you'll sell no one. You may offend some, and further decrease any chances at developing goodwill with life-long Montana residents, many who are living on land that's been in their family for generations.

No one in Helena gives a hoot what numbers these bears are. Oh, and when I see no one, I mean those that are going to be controlling the legislature. It sure ain't gonna be anyone posting or reading on the Independent site, I'll bet on that.

I'd love to see the faces of those Republicans and Tea Party members when I tell them we're on a fool's errand. Wow, that'll convince 'em, won't it?

If you think anyone else that's running in Missoula is going to come here and comment and have a dialogue on these issues that you guys seem to care about, keep going. But if you think otherwise than I'd urge you to get your message across.

Believe me, come November 5 no one is going to be listening anymore. Now's your chance, use it wisely.

Posted by Greg Strandberg on 02/17/2014 at 10:23 PM

I'd love it, Michael, if you could explain it to me what I'm missing.

That's two comments now that have pointed out my lack of knowledge but have provided none in return.

Where are you coming from, I'm sure many reading this would like to know. I've put my experience, what's yours?

Enlighten us.

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Posted by Greg Strandberg on 02/17/2014 at 10:13 PM

Greg, it's clear you've stepped into a debate on which you are not qualified to comment. You may have a point hidden beneath your lack of knowledge, but in the future, please do some research before coming out firing.

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Posted by Michael J. Dax on 02/17/2014 at 9:17 PM

The question is not "how many native grizzly bears do we need in Montana?" but "why are there ANY exotic, domestic sheep in native grizzly habitat at all?"

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Posted by Other Nations on 02/14/2014 at 7:20 PM

Your circular argument confounds me, Josh. Have you already answered for me?

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Posted by Greg Strandberg on 02/14/2014 at 3:21 PM

Greg, unless you're proposing to redirect the funds we spend on grizzly recovery to feeding and clothing kids, I'm not sure what your point is. We spend tax money on a lot of things that have nothing to do with feeding and clothing kids. Your dramatic turn about telling people a bear is more important to them could be applied to every other tax expenditure as well (national forests, highways, post office, military, etc.)

In this case we're spending tax dollars on a fools errand, trying to get grizzlies and sheep grazing to coexist on the same landscape. We can either throw good tax money after bad trying to get sheep and grizzlies to coexist, or we can move the sheep research station to a more suitable location. It's a win for taxpayers, bears and the research station.

And just because this bear was tagged as #726 doesn't mean they've collared 726 bears this year.

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Posted by Josh on 02/14/2014 at 2:47 PM

Well why is it called that? Because it was the 726th bear they ID'd? What number are they up to now?

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Posted by Greg Strandberg on 02/14/2014 at 1:49 PM

726 is the name of the bear, not the number of bears in the Centennials.

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Posted by Michael J. Dax on 02/14/2014 at 9:17 AM

I worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena from 1999 to 2001. How many grizzly bears do we need in Montana?

726 grizzly bears sounds like a lot to me, is it? And what was the population like 10 years ago?

According to Fish, Wildlife and Parks, way back in the day there were 50,000 to 100,000 grizzlies. Well, then people came, and by 1975 when the grizzly was listed there were less than 1,000 in that same area.

When the grizzly was delisted in 1997 we had about 1,400. The report also says that for every one bear death there's a risk a whole local population could die out.

Again, how many grizzly bears do we need, and why? Remember, I worked for USFWS for 2 years - I'm not exactly someone who disagrees with this.

But what's the rationale for spending that tax money I send to the feds every 3 months? Many people in Missoula don't have enough food to eat or are sleeping in their coats, after all.

Do you want to tell them a bear is more important than them, than their kids? I don't.

Greg Strandberg
Candidate - HD98

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Posted by Greg Strandberg on 02/13/2014 at 1:51 PM
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