New Conservation Partners Extend Vital Ground’s Conflict Prevention Goals

Kevin Rhoades photo of the Mission Mountains from Ninepipes Reservoir
Photo: Kevin Rhoades
The Mission Mountains tower over the Mission Valley, where bear conflicts are on the rise. Vital Ground is partnering with tribal managers to improve electric fencing.

Grizzly bears are on the move. In the last year, we’ve seen more and more evidence of grizzly travel beyond the borders of original recovery zones. As the Great Bear reconnects its fragmented range, our conflict reduction efforts must follow in the animals’ footsteps.

That’s why our 2017 Conservation Partners Grant Program extended Vital Ground’s support to three new areas—the Mission, Madison and Big Hole valleys—while also continuing our efforts in the Swan Valley. Read on to learn about these partnerships and why they represent the right places for reducing conflicts between bears and people.

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

North of Missoula, the Mission Valley provides an agricultural haven for western Montana. Low in elevation—around 3,000 feet, compared to the jagged 8,000-10,000 foot peaks that tower above it—the valley has seen increased human development coincide with the recovery and expansion of the grizzly bear population in the Mission Mountains and elsewhere in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. The result has been a sharp rise in bear-human conflicts.

With much of the valley on the Flathead Indian Reservation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Wildlife Management Program responds to these incidents. Domestic livestock alone—chickens, pigs, goats, llamas and sheep—have been involved in conflicts with 30 different grizzly bears since 2010, with 13 of those ending in bear extermination or relocation, according to tribal wildlife managers. And that’s not to mention the growing problem of grizzlies raiding cornfields in the valley—an easy meal that can be hard for a hungry bear to resist.

These troubling patterns made it a no-brainer for Vital Ground to support a new tribal initiative that will explore alternative electric fencing solutions to assist poultry producers in stopping conflicts with wildlife. A tribal wildlife manager currently enrolled in the wildlife biology graduate program at the University of Montana will lead the project, testing the effectiveness of different electric fencing configurations in deterring grizzly bears from poultry operations.

With the effort also including a public education component, this work could lead to widespread adoption of innovative conflict-reduction strategies up and down the Mission Valley. That’s just the kind of exciting boots-on-the-ground problem solving we are eager to support.

Big Hole Watershed Committee

Big Hole Watershed Committee LogoPerched between the Greater Yellowstone, Northern Continental Divide and Bitterroot ecosystems, southwest Montana’s Big Hole Valley could one day provide crucial corridor habitat where bears born in three different states intersect.

With the Big Hole’s first agency-confirmed grizzly sighting in several years occurring in 2016, the resettlement has begun. Now we must help the area’s human residents prevent grizzly problems before they happen.

Leading the charge is the Big Hole Watershed Committee, a local stakeholder’s group whose governing board represents interests ranging from conservation to ranching to tourism. Our first partnership with BHWC will support a new Upper Big Hole Ranger Rider position. Drawing from the success of the Range Rider Program farther north in the Blackfoot Valley—a program Vital Ground has supported with grants in recent years—this new project will put a seasoned manager on the land and in the community, monitoring wolf and grizzly populations while collaborating with ranchers to quickly remove conflict-inducing livestock carcasses and modify grazing plans to account for wildlife movements.

It adds up to more boots on the ground—or in the stirrup, in this case—working for the coexistence of native predators and ranching in one of the newest right places for grizzly conservation.

People and Carnivores

Photo by Patti Swoka of grizzly trying to open bear-proof garbage container
Bear-proof garbage containers measurably lower the chances of human-bear conflicts. (Photo by Patti Sowka)

Lying between the Big Hole and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is the Madison Valley, home to one of Montana’s glittering blue-ribbon trout rivers, wilderness gateways for hunters and hikers, and the outdoor tourism industry that follows these opportunities. In the last decade, that industry has grown considerably, thanks in part to the advent of vacation-home rental platforms like VRBO and AirBnB. It all begs the question: can tech coexist with bears?

Where vacation rentals in the Madison used to attract fewer and longer stays, the ease of booking a VRBO for a week of fishing now brings many hundreds of new faces to the area each season. With the valley just 20 miles west of Yellowstone, these crowds come from far and wide, and their experience levels with grizzly bears also vary widely.

That’s where People and Carnivores enter the picture. This small coexistence-minded organization has been working in communities outside of Yellowstone for more than 20 years. Now, with Vital Ground’s support, it is targeting vacation rentals in the Madison Valley with an expanded suite of bear-aware essentials. The new initiative will partner with vacation-rental owners to invest in bear-proof garbage containment and bear safety education on everything from print brochures to online videos to refrigerator magnets. As Yellowstone’s grizzlies range west and tourists follow, we’re proud to help bear-proof this iconic area for the benefit of every new arrival, whether grizzly or human.

Swan Valley Bear Resources

For the fourth consecutive year, we’re supporting Swan Valley Bear Resources, a community group formed by local nonprofits, community members and land managers in order to reduce bear mortality in the scenic Swan Valley. Our own ties to the place run deep, with Vital Ground’s first conservation easements located there, and our largest collection of habitat protection projects still clustered around the Condon-area corridor between the Mission and Swan mountain ranges.

So we remain eager to back the valuable work of SVBR, who host community classes and workshops teaching landowners about bear-resistant garbage containers, bear-proof fencing for gardens and livestock, and bear safety for recreationists. This is the critical follow-up work ensuring the efficacy of our habitat protection efforts in the Swan, and we can’t think of a better partner for it.


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