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UM professors: Increasing tolerance for grizzly bears no easy task

Posted at 12:35 PM, Apr 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-20 14:35:11-04

Convincing certain Montanans that they should tolerate grizzly bears isn’t going to be easy, according to two University of Montana professors.

The 18 members of the governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council met online last Friday to continue their discussion of the social side of grizzly bear management, including hunting. They learned that although many iffy claims are repeated when discussing tolerance of large carnivores, there isn’t much scientific evidence for some of them.

The one thing they are learning is dealing with people is the most confounding part of managing grizzly bears, especially when it comes to trying to increase tolerance for bears. Even defining what social tolerance is can be difficult, said social science professor Libby Metcalf.

“I like to simplify the idea as ‘putting up with something you don’t like.’ That definition resonates with me,” Metcalf said.

A number of people on the Front Range and farther east only recently started dealing with grizzly bears and don’t like them, let alone want to put up with them. Can their attitudes be changed?

To find that out, the Metcalf’s along with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks sent surveys to more than 5,000 randomly selected Montanans to learn what actions they’d be willing to take and what FWP actions they’d support to conserve grizzly bears. They’re also hoping to learn whether people acclimate to the presence of bears by comparing the answers of those in areas with and without bears. Metcalf said about 40% of the surveys were returned.

Social science professor Alex Metcalf and his graduate student Holly Nesbitt said other scientific studies show that changing people’s attitudes is a very slow process, especially when it comes to things they don’t like. The one circumstance where attitudes might change quickly is when people who don’t live near bears and don’t mind them eventually have to deal with them as bears move east. Then attitudes might change for the worse.

Even if their attitudes change in favor of bears, that doesn’t mean people will change their behavior. That’s because people are influenced by those around them, a concept called social norms.

“If everyone you know engages in a particular behavior, there’s a strong influence on you to engage in that behavior as well,” Alex said. “The other thing is we’re fairly responsive to what we think other people think we should do.”

Some think that education could improve tolerance, but studies show that attitudes are usually driven by perceptions of risks and benefits, Nesbitt said. If a rancher considers grizzlies a risk to his livestock, education won’t necessarily make him more tolerant.

“Those perceptions of risks and benefits are driven by things like how much an individual feels they have control over the risk, how much they trust the agency responsible for managing that species, and what their emotional reaction is to that species,” Nesbitt said. “It’s not easy to pull one lever or the other, because they’re all interacting with one another.”

Council member Trina Jo Bradley could relate to the feeling of not having much control, saying that her Valier ranch survives in spite of the bears and how could she convey that message “without sounding like a jerk?”

“I think you’re doing it. You’re telling your story from your experience,” Alex said. “If someone fully disagrees with you and thinks you’re a jerk, there’s not much you can do about that.”

Trust in Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear managers kept popping up as a big factor during the council’s discussion. Council member Erin Edge said surveys about bison in Gardiner and West Yellowstone showed residents tolerated bison better if they had one-on-one interactions with and developed trust in FWP employees.

Alex said that in addition to trust, people are happier with decisions where they have some say in the outcome. That means agencies must not only provide ample opportunity to comment, Alex said, but they also must show that the comments had some direct effect or at least show the comments were taken seriously.

“Really listening to comments and the residents of this state – it’s not only about making people happy; it’s about making better decisions,” Alex said. “All kinds of research show that’s how you get to a better outcome.”

After receiving about 700 comments over the past 48 hours, the council has the opportunity to have a better outcome. But the group is still somewhat mixed on what to do about a hunt in Montana, especially after hearing a few experts from Canada and Alaska agree that hunting doesn’t reduce conflict and controls the population only when hundreds of hunting licenses are sold.

A number of council members who favored hunting touted the North American Model, which uses money from hunting licenses to fund wildlife conservation. Some insisted that having a hunting season would increase tolerance, and although a hunt might not be held for a few years, it needed to be included as a tool for FWP.

Bear biologist Mike Madel said he didn’t like the thought of hunting bears, but a limited hunt on private land might reduce some conflict situations. FWP had such a hunt in 1991 and two of the three bears killed were problem bears. It might be a way to make ranchers more tolerant, and such a limited hunt could be designed to avoid connectivity areas, Madel said.

But others insisted it was too early to even be considering a hunt and didn’t think a hunt served much of a purpose with such relatively small populations. They said FWP was already able to do what was needed.

When it comes to building more trust, a few council members suggested hiring more bear specialists or having an education and outreach center. To provide more personal control, a few suggested the idea of financial acceptance where landowners were better paid to offset their risk and one person suggested training landowners to assess livestock carcasses.

“Trust is going to be huge,” said council member Kameron Kelsey. “We can all be socially accepting of something, but it is a financial situation as well with livestock or crops or the land itself. Whether it’s having more biologists on the landscape to help work with people one-on-one and develop that trust, so we can accept the bear being there and still make a living doing what we’re doing.”

The council will meet again this week to discuss livestock losses and compensation.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at .