Five-Year, $250,000 Partnership Will Expand Vital Ground Grant Program
Communities throughout the northern Rocky Mountains will find new help in avoiding conflicts with an expanding grizzly bear population over the next five years, as The Vital Ground Foundation and The ALSAM Foundation have partnered on a five-year, $250,000 commitment to support locally-based efforts to head off conflicts between people and bears before they happen.
The initiative complements Vital Ground’s habitat protection work as a land trust committed to conserving and restoring North America’s grizzly bear population for future generations.
Vital Ground’s focus on preventing bear-related conflicts has intensified in recent years due to grizzly bears reaching population recovery goals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. As a result, the species is returning to historic range outside the recovery zone boundaries first established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service following the grizzly’s endangered species listing in 1975.
Recovery within the Greater Yellowstone and Glacier-Bob Marshall areas has grizzlies roaming beyond the public wildland habitat that anchors those populations. Bears are returning in higher numbers to high-quality historical habitat along the valley bottoms that link the mountainous recovery ecosystems to the species’ native prairie environments.
These movements can bring grizzlies into conflict with residential development and agricultural activities. In Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front region, where grizzlies are increasingly following riparian areas east out of Glacier and the Bob Marshall, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks reported a record 46 confirmed conflicts in 2017, leading to 21 livestock depredations and 12 grizzly bear deaths.
Biologists widely agree that the long-term recovery and resilience of the species depends on individual bears’ ability to move safely between ecosystems and exchange genetics with other bears throughout the large blocks of public land that anchor the species’ core habitats in the northwestern United States.
In addition to targeting conflict prevention in those areas where grizzly numbers are expanding, there is also a need to head off conflicts in landscapes where the bears are still struggling to recover. Even though the Glacier and Yellowstone areas have met their original recovery goals, grizzly numbers in the four other recovery zones established by Fish and Wildlife—the Bitterroot, Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk and North Cascades ecosystems—remain well below their recovery targets.
As a result, Vital Ground views conflict prevention as an essential complement to habitat protection. As grizzlies expand their range and cross between ecosystems, communities must be equipped with new strategies—from electric fencing to bear spray education to livestock carcass removal—to help the bears stay out of trouble.
“Restoration of grizzlies in the Lower 48 states implicates a large, regionally-connected population of animals that are able to interact, exchange genetics and adapt to the many challenges they face as a species,” says Ryan Lutey, Vital Ground’s executive director. “Through this initiative, Vital Ground and The ALSAM Foundation are making an investment to increase the social carrying capacity of the landscapes we’re simultaneously working to protect.”
Since 2014, Vital Ground’s Conservation Partners Grant Program has contributed $113,000 to support 12 different partners in areas with increasing grizzly bear traffic. Partnership with The ALSAM Foundation will dramatically amplify those efforts across a much broader region to fund efforts such as a range rider program in southwest Montana’s Big Hole Valley, bear-aware education for vacationers in the neighboring Madison Valley, and efforts to improve electric fencing in the Mission Valley southwest of Glacier.
The ALSAM Foundation’s commitment to conservation coincides with revamped strategic planning for Vital Ground. During 2017 and 2018, Vital Ground convened more than 50 state, federal and tribal biologists and wildlife managers over a series of meetings that will help pinpoint critical locations for future habitat protection and conflict prevention projects.
“The northwestern United States’ hosts a tremendous public lands legacy, where opportunities still exist to maintain healthy connections between grizzly bear recovery ecosystems ‒ really the only place in the country where conservation on this scale remains possible,” says Lutey. “There’s a direct and tangible connection between healthy, wild landscapes and healthy, vibrant communities, and Vital Ground is exceptionally grateful that The ALSAM Foundation is investing in those communities with us.”