While a federal strategy to deal with grizzly bears in Chouteau, Hill and Liberty counties might be years away from implementation - pending the bears' delisting as an endangered species - some local residents - and a county official - are annoyed that they knew nothing about it.
"I wish they would communicate more with us, is what I wish they would do," Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson said Monday.
At issue is a draft strategy for dealing with bears from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem if they are removed from the endangered species list. The draft document says Zone 3, the eastern border of which would include a line from the Canadian border through Havre to Fort Benton, primarily consists of areas where grizzly bears do not have enough suitable habitat for long-term survival and occupancy.
"Grizzly bear occupancy will not be actively discouraged," the document says. "Management emphasis will be on conflict response. Grizzly bears will not be captured and removed just because they occur in Zone 3, nor will they be captured and removed from Zone 3 unless there are conflicts that can only be resolved by capture and relocation or removal of the offending bear. Regulated grizzly bear hunting would be allowed."
Public comment on the draft was taken last summer, but Peterson and local resident Rylee Strauser say the first they heard about the draft was in the last few weeks.
Strauser said she heard the document was available online, but could not find it in two weeks of searching.
"It was extremely hard, and my main question is, why didn't we hear about it sooner," she said this morning. "Why didn't we hear about it when the commenting session was going on.
It's going to be pretty controversial, I think, when people find out that it's happening," she added.
Under the strategy, if the bears are delisted they would be managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Lauri Hanauska-Brown, chief of FWP's Nongame Management Bureau, said Monday the delisting could be years away. She said a proposal to delist the bears could be released late in 2015 or in 2016, but lawsuits likely would be filed which could delay the process for years.
Bears found east of the Zone 3 border still would be considered endangered, but the area where they would be delisted would give FWP greater management flexibility, including in regulating hunting seasons, she said.
There are no plans to transplant bears to this area, or in the Southwest grizzly bear management area, the plans for which have raised some controversy in the last year.
Both Strauser and Peterson said it is likely people will, sooner or later, have to learn to deal with having grizzlies here. But knowing the federal plans would have been good information, they said.
Peterson said, for example, if the county needs to start providing bear-proof trash containers, it needs to know that.
"Do we have some responsibilities we need to take care of ...?" he asked."That's my request, is better communications."
Strauser said she thinks grizzlies will come to the area - spottings have occurred east of Chester, she said.
In 2010, FWP euthanized a grizzly that killed a sheep near Loma in 2009, was relocated west of the Divide then was caught after killing chickens near Loma in 2010.
Grizzlies also were spotted near Brady, north of Great Falls, in 2010.
"I dont think we have a choice at this point," Strauser said. "We're going to have to learn how to coexist with them, and there's going to be a lot to doing that.
"I do believe we are going to see them out here," she added, "and it's going to change everything."
Online: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service draft grizzly bear management strategy: http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/science/PeerReviewDocs/NCDE_Grizzly.pdf.