A Grizzly Mystery in Montana
Economic Change, Antipathy on Animals Greet Bear Comeback

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.

Flathead County is part of a slice of western Montana that is rapidly getting richer, better educated and more crowded, even as it turns away from the state's traditional reliance on resource extraction industries.

Retirement money and revenue from stock investments now dwarfs, by more than 3 to 1, the combined earnings of timber, mining, farming and oil drilling, according to a recent study. More and more people live here because they want to look at the scenery or play in the out-of-doors -- not because they want to work out there.

Cultural incongruities abound. Rich newcomers build palatial homes on steep mountain slopes (many in areas thick with grizzlies), frequent organic dry cleaners and insist on fresh seafood at pricey restaurants. But the Flathead Valley also incubates far right-wing militants, many of whom are angry about how this once-remote corner of Montana has tarted itself up as part of the New West, while leaving them behind.

A large weapons cache was found near here three years ago, property of a citizen militia group called Project 7. It plotted, rather feebly, to assassinate local officials and then go to war with the National Guard and NATO. A leader of the group, David Burgert, a former snowmobile salesman now in prison, was a sometime caller to Z-600 talk radio, a Kalispell station owned by John Stokes.

Stokes presides over a splenetic midday show in which he and his callers rail against Mexican immigrants, socialism and the sins of the federal government. In an interview about the recent rise in bear killings, Stokes said that his listeners certainly are not anti-grizzly but are justifiably furious about bear-protection rules that for years have closed roads in federal forests.

"The idea that they are endangered or there is a shortage of them is a crock," said Stokes, who added that he and many of his listeners "enjoy watching grizzles" and that he has never heard talk about harming them. As for the feds, Stokes said, that is a different story.

"To say that there is a local agenda against bears is to be paranoid," Stokes said, while quickly adding that federal law enforcement officials "have good reason to be paranoid because nobody likes them around here anyway, and it is their own doing."

The federal official most alarmed about the recent spike in illegal bear killings is Chris Servheen, grizzly-bear recovery coordinator for Fish and Wildlife.

Servheen, who has been supervising the comeback of the bears for 25 years, said there is a strong possibility that the actual number of illegal kills in the past two years is significantly higher than what game wardens have been able to count.

"It is easy to kill and leave them, and the bodies are never found," he said. "It doesn't take very many people who want to kill bears to really make a big difference."

State and federal game agencies found five of the 11 illegally killed grizzlies this year only because the bears were wearing radio-transmitter collars, Servheen said. The collars send a distinct "mortality" signal when a bear stops moving for an extended period of time.

"If we didn't have these collars, we would think there aren't that many dying," Servheen said. "It is critical that we increase our sample of collared bears."

The problem, however, is that Fish and Wildlife lacks enough money to collar and monitor a large enough percentage of the grizzlies in northwest Montana to know with scientific certainty the actual amount of illegal killing, Servheen said. (In the Yellowstone ecosystem south of here, poaching of grizzlies is not regarded as a significant problem.) It costs about $10,000 a year to collar and monitor a grizzly, including equipment, manpower and airplane costs. There are now about 30 grizzlies with collars, but Servheen said that number needs to double -- so about 10 percent of bears could be tracked -- before researchers can get a handle on the scale of illegal killings.

More people and more grizzlies in northwest Montana have meant more mistaken-identity shootings, with hunters accidentally killing grizzlies they thought were black bears. It has also caused more encounters between marauding bears and frightened homeowners with shotguns.

But Servheen said he suspects that something more malicious is behind the increase in illegal killings. He said there is now considerable evidence, although not yet any forensic laboratory proof, that as many as four grizzlies have been poisoned in the past two years in northwest Montana.

Poisoning of bears would be a highly unusual occurrence, law enforcement officials said.

"There are more dead bears and some of them may very well have been poisoned, and those who are doing this are unscrupulous people," Servheen said. "But when you get down to who they are -- I just don't know."

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