Home to some of Montana’s oldest working ranches, the Ruby Valley’s wide open rangeland and rugged high country provide key migration corridors for wildlife moving from the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem to the High Divide, and Salmon-Selway Ecosystems. Characterized by sweeping grassland, rivers, and mountain ranges, this open and undeveloped land is increasingly rare, not just in the west but across the globe.
Private land makes up 39% of the Ruby watershed, while 61% is managed by state and federal agencies. Agriculture and cattle ranching has sustained the rural economies of this area for generations, and continues to hold the small communities of the Ruby Valley together. Many of these ranching operations rely on adjacent public land summer grazing permits, some of which date back almost a century. With grazing permits passing down through generations, there is a strong connection to these public lands, and a commitment to steward these places so they continue to support the livelihoods of the next generation. Without public lands grazing, many operations wouldn’t be viable.
As development pressure increases, land values in the Ruby Valley have skyrocketed, making grazing leases on private land prohibitively expensive for ranching operations already running on a thin margin. The continued viability of many ranches depends on public grazing allotments, without which many operations would be forced to sell, opening up large swaths of ranchland to development. This type of land conversion would have significant impacts to open space, wildlife corridors, rural economies, and local communities.
Wildlife conflict is one of the biggest challenges facing public land grazers in the Ruby Valley. Many ranchers, including members of the RVSA, are being severely impacted by grizzly bears as the population recovers and moves back into historic habitat. Confirmed livestock losses to grizzly bears in our region are increasing, and members of the RVSA are experiencing substantial increases in the number of unconfirmed livestock losses as well. Grizzly bear depredations on livestock pose real challenges for the livelihoods of ranchers in the greater Ruby landscape. [Insert some facts and figures: Number of livestock reported lost in 2019, what that figures out to $)
At the same time, we value grizzly bears and recognize the importance and significance of this species. Thirty years ago, only 200 bears remained. Today, over 700 grizzlies are found across the wildlands of Greater Yellowstone. The RVSA would like to see grizzly bears thrive in this region for years to come and we envision a day when Greater Yellowstone grizzly bears connect to populations in the Crown of the Continent. We recognize that this vision comes with complex challenges, especially in working lands where grizzly bears come into conflict with livestock. Ultimately, the success of grizzly bears into the future depends largely on their ability to stay out of trouble with people. Conflicts can lead to dead bears, property damage, and sometimes human injury or fatality.
Our long-term vision is to maintain working ranchlands and ensure connected, viable grizzly bear populations. These goals are connected— grizzly bears depend on the wide open working lands of southwest Montana to connect with other grizzly populations and strengthen genetic diversity, and working ranchlands depend on public lands grazing and limiting livestock loss.
We recognize that having grizzly bears on the landscape is a shared social value, but one which imparts outsized costs on the valley’s private landowners and requires creative solutions collaboratively developed. Over the course of a year, the RVSA met monthly to discuss the challenges faced by landowners and the conservation values at stake and developed a set of recommendations for decision-makers.
Connectivity between ecosystems
The RVSA members agree that keeping working lands intact and protecting secure habitat on public lands is a key aspect of long-term goals for grizzly bear habitat connectivity. We also believe that conflict prevention and timely, reliable conflict response are important components to managing for grizzly bear connectivity. We strongly agree that lack of resources are barriers to effective conflict prevention and response: both funding and people on the ground.
Enhance agency capacity by hiring more staff for preventing and responding to conflict in areas between DMAs
Increase grizzly bear monitoring outside of DMAs
Prioritize pilot projects for better understanding conflict prevention and management solutions in the Gravellies
The RVSA agrees there is substantial need for increased, long-term funding to support conflict prevention programs and tools. New revenue sources must tap into a broader constituency than just sportsmen and agricultural producers. The impacts of grizzly bear recovery and expansion are not equitably shared, and all citizens must share financial ownership of this great conservation success.
Confirmed livestock losses to grizzly bears in our region are increasing, and members of the RVSA are experiencing substantial increases in the number of unconfirmed losses as well. We see an opportunity for our alliance to work more effectively with the U.S. Forest Service to mitigate conflict risk by enhancing management flexibility on public land grazing allotments. Cooperative range management decision-making among the Forest Service and permittees based on on-the-ground conditions could prevent conflicts through avoidance of areas with high risk of conflict or adjusting range management to avoid conflicts before the situation becomes worse. Allotment management based on current conditions and potential for conflict could include adjustments in periods of use across different pastures. We see great value in establishing cooperative range monitoring programs with local stakeholders and the Forest Service as the foundation for building the trusting relationships and knowledge around range readiness necessary for flexible decision-making.
The RVSA believes there is also a need for more Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks capacity to educate all hunters about safety in bear country, with an especially strong focus on non-residents.
Establish new mechanism for generating funds from broader constituencies than agricultural producers and sportsmen to support hiring of additional agency personnel
Encourage federal partners to work with local groups to initiative cooperative range monitoring programs that enhance trust and improve flexible decision-making
Enhance educational outreach by FWP to hunters
Response protocols to grizzly conflict in different parts of the state
Our Alliance believes there is substantial need for more clarity, certainty, and definition surrounding grizzly conflict response protocol. It would be valuable for the relevant state and federal agencies to work together in establishing clarity around allowable take for conflict management beyond the boundaries in which mortality thresholds guide management (i.e. in lands between Demographic Monitoring Areas). Individual bears that are identified as chronic depredators should be removed to reduce conflicts and support social tolerance. Grizzly bear management and conflict management should consider specific demographics when looking at occupancy and movements in these intervening lands between ecosystem recovery areas.
Agree on allowable take numbers outside of DMAs with a focus on removing chronic depredators
Consider how conflict response protocol may need to vary among demographic classes
Resources for long-term sustainability of grizzly bear conservation
As previously mentioned, current resources for grizzly bear conservation and management are inadequate and there is substantial opportunity for tapping into a broader constituency interested in grizzly bear conservation. Potential funding mechanisms could include a tourist tax in gateway communities, increased general funding appropriations, a conservation fee associated with National Parks (i.e. in alignment with Wyoming state legislative resolution), or dollars received through Recovering Americas Wildlife Act. There is also a need for federal funding for grizzly bears post-delisting. We recommend new funding sources prioritize putting additional agency personnel on the ground to manage bear conflicts at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Wildlife Services. There is also a need to fully fund the MT Livestock Loss Board, to equitably compensate livestock producers for losses and fund non-lethal tools. Additional agency capacity and funding for conflict management could improve response time and create new opportunities for creative techniques in preventing conflicts. These improvements may support maintaining and increasing grizzly bear tolerance by livestock producers in our area.
We believe long-term sustainability of working ranches must be considered in the context of funding and resource needs. Livestock loss compensation is an opportunity to maintain the economic viability of ranching operations in grizzly country. Our alliance is in support of a tiered livestock loss compensation multiplier that simultaneously incentivizes preventive techniques. This multiplier should be grounded in experimental design research that accurately assigns cause-specific losses.
Fully fund livestock loss board
Establish compensation multipliers that include additional compensation when non-lethal avoidance measures are taken
Increase funding to support more staff for FWP and WS through implementation of mechanisms that generate new revenue from a broader constituency