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Recently, I attended the third meeting of the Montana Grizzly Bear advisory council established by Gov. Steve Bullock earlier this year to “address challenges and to help set a long-term vision for bear management and conservation in Montana.”

Although the Executive Order establishing the council states that “in order to ensure its citizens have a voice in the future of grizzly bears, Montana must provide meaningful opportunities for people to engage in a public discussion around grizzly bear management,” the public has not yet been meaningfully engaged. Meetings are open to the public, but are held during business hours on weekdays when many members of the public cannot attend. The council’s website for public comment has not been promoted.

The council is comprised of just 18 citizens. If this council is going to create recommendations that accurately reflect the will of the public, it’s absolutely critical that the voices of many more Montanans are heard in this process, as well as voices of people across the country who are concerned about the future of grizzly bears.

I don’t think it can be overstated how important Montana is to recovery of grizzly bears in the lower 48.

Four of the six grizzly bear recovery areas established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after grizzly bears were placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in 1975 are wholly or partially in Montana: Yellowstone, the Northern Continental Divide surrounding Glacier National Park, the Cabinet-Yaak in the northwest corner of the state, and the Bitterroot. Full recovery of grizzly bears demands that bears in these recovery areas be able to naturally connect with each other and to recolonize historic range in the Bitterroot — the vast wildlands of the Salmon-Selway and Frank Church Wilderness and surrounding areas — but it’s unclear that there is agreement on this within the council.

Grizzly bears in Montana and throughout the lower 48 remain, for now, under the protection of the ESA. Recommendations from this council, if implemented, could significantly affect management of grizzly bears for decades to come in Montana — toward recovery, or away from it. For example, the council could make constructive recommendations on how to further reduce human-bear and livestock-bear conflicts, particularly in areas between recovery zones that are important for connectivity. Or the council could recommend initiation of a trophy hunting season should bears be delisted in the future. The council will be meeting several more times next year, and must deliver its recommendations to the governor’s office in August.

In many ways, the stage for whether or not grizzly bears fully recover anywhere in the lower 48 is in Montana. We need this council to get it right, and to make strong recommendations that will help bears achieve natural connectivity, that will promote funding for and implementation of more measures to prevent conflicts, and that will promote coexistence and sharing of this incredible landscape with the great bear.

Here in Montana, we have a deep responsibility to ourselves and to the rest of the country in managing grizzly bears and ensuring their recovery. Public access to these council meetings and meaningful public engagement is a necessity. Grizzly bear management is an important issue that shouldn’t be decided by the 18 members of the council alone. If you care about the future of grizzly bears, please get in touch with us at sc.org/recovery to find out how you can help, or send a comment directly to the council at fwp.mt.gov/gbac and let us know. Your voice can make a difference.

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Bonnie Rice, of Bozeman, is the Sierra Club's senior representative for the Greater Yellowstone-Northern Rockies.

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