A Grizzly Mystery in Montana

Grizzly bear populations are rising, but federal authorities are investigating the illegal killing of the animals.
Grizzly bear populations are rising, but federal authorities are investigating the illegal killing of the animals. (By Deirdre Eitel -- Bozeman Daily Chronicle Via Associated Press)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 13, 2005

KALISPELL, Mont. -- Who's killing the great bears of Montana?

Twenty-one grizzlies have been illegally killed here in northwest Montana in the past two years, a record pace for poaching since the bears were listed 30 years ago as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The rising death toll alarms federal law enforcement officials, as well as government biologists supervising the otherwise successful comeback of the big bears. And it comes at a delicate moment in the politics of environmentalism, with the Bush administration poised, despite the objections of many conservation groups, to remove grizzlies farther south in Yellowstone National Park from the endangered species list.

The spike in grizzly killing is concentrated here in a rapidly growing, spectacularly scenic but culturally disjointed corner of the West. Affluent outsiders have overrun Flathead County in the past 15 years, fueling 37 percent population growth and creating a service-based economy that needs grizzlies as toothsome symbols of an eco-friendly western lifestyle.

Some longtime residents, though, are seething over a decades-long regional decline in logging and mining. They see protection of the bears as part of a loathsome New World Order that is closing roads in federal forests and marginalizing their lives.

"The government's doggedness in protecting the grizzlies has brought on tremendous polarization and anger in our community," said Fred Hodgeboom, president of Montanans for Multiple Use, a local group that advocates increased logging, mining and grazing on federal land.

As for who is killing the grizzlies, investigators say they are making little or no progress in their search for suspects or witnesses.

Part of the reason, they say, is the hugeness and remoteness of the crime scene, which is nearly the size of Switzerland and just as mountainous. The grizzly bear recovery zone in what is called the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem now covers 8 million acres. It has expanded from 6 million acres in the 1980s as the comeback of the grizzlies, estimated at between 500 and 800 bears, has gained momentum. Grizzlies now frequent areas where they had not been seen for at least two decades.

Lack of investigative traction is also the result of widespread local animosity toward the Endangered Species Act, said Dominic Domenici, resident agent in charge of law enforcement for Fish and Wildlife.

"It makes people who have information on the kills not want to come forward," Domenici said. "Sentiment against the bears and the government is the biggest handicap to investigation."

To coax local residents to provide leads, Fish and Wildlife is about to offer rewards of between $1,000 and $5,000 for information leading to successful prosecution of individuals who illegally kill grizzlies, Domenici said; the service has not decided on a reward amount. Knowingly killing a grizzly is a federal misdemeanor punishable by as much as six months in jail and a $25,000 fine, as well as restitution payments as high as $15,000.

The human context for the recent jump in illegal grizzly kills (11 so far this year and 10 last year, after 13 years during which the poaching number averaged about three) is one of head-spinning demographic, economic and cultural change.

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