When Chris Servheen speaks to skeptical audiences across the Northern Rockies, he holds one goal above all others. The famed bear biologist aims to fix his lessons in the mind of the hunter. He wants his words to return in that critical moment when the hunter is alone in the wilderness, with a grizzly in his sights, and no one to witness what comes next.
“The decision is made when you’re looking through the scope and there’s a grizzly bear there,” he says. “Are you gonna shoot him or not? You think, ‘I can get away with it. I don’t like grizzly bears. I can do this.’ Or do you think, ‘It’s worthwhile to have these animals around — I shouldn’t do this’? That’s where the bears live or die.”
For now, the solitary hunter in the crosshairs of Servheen’s speeches is choosing between letting the grizzlies be or poaching them — but that could soon change. While grizzlies are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, Republican lawmakers across the Northern Rockies are pressing the Biden administration to turn management of the bears over to the states, thus allowing for the opening of legal hunting seasons.
Bear biologist Chris Servheen.
Photo: Courtesy of Chris Servheen
For 35 years, Servheen led the U.S. government’s effort to bring the iconic bears back from the brink of extirpation in the lower 48 states. He has a no-bullshit demeanor befitting a scientist who has spent his life on the front lines of one of the most politically charged battles in the American West. With a wide handlebar mustache, a doctorate in wildlife biology and forestry from the University of Montana, and a deep understanding of the region’s competing constituencies, he’s had the distinction of being both cursed by ranchers and sued by environmentalists.
By the time he retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016, Servheen had become a prominent advocate of the view that federal grizzly bear recovery efforts had worked and the time for delisting had come. Now the president and board chair of the Montana Wildlife Federation, the state’s oldest and largest conservation organization, Servheen’s position on the delisting question has turned 180 degrees. The reason is rooted in politics, and what he sees as a wave of fact-free “hysteria” sweeping the Rocky Mountain West.
In the past two years, Servheen watched with horror as a right-wing takeover in state politics — from Gov. Greg Gianforte’s 2020 election to the establishment of a Republican supermajority in 2022 — has radically reshaped Montana’s relationship to wildlife policy, particularly in the cases of protected predators that some Westerners see as living symbols of federal overreach.
“It’s a clown car of absurdities here. The people that are coming up with these ideas are totally misinformed about what really is going on.”
The first wave of the assault targeted wolves. During Montana’s last legislative session, in 2021, Gianforte — with the help of handpicked wildlife commissioners representing trophy hunting, outfitting, and livestock industries — signed bills to deregulate wolf-hunting techniques. The state also did away with hunting quotas on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park, leading to the deadliest winter the park’s biologists have ever recorded, with roughly a fifth of Yellowstone’s wolves killed in a matter of months.
With a new legislative session now underway, Servheen — who also serves as co-chair of the North American Bears Expert Team for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature — and other veteran wildlife biologists across Montana are profoundly concerned that Republican lawmakers are angling to apply the same regressive approach on grizzly bears.
“It’s a clown car of absurdities here,” he told me. “The people that are coming up with these ideas are totally misinformed about what really is going on, and it’s all based on their misconceptions and their crazy feelings about ‘I hate predators.’”
In Montana, the effort to delist grizzlies is led by Gianforte and his fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. The pair bonded in the 1990s, working at RightNow Technologies, a tech company Gianforte co-founded with financial support from Daines’s father.
RightNow was purchased in 2012 for a reported $1.8 billion. The sale helped transform Gianforte and Daines from very wealthy to ultra-wealthy. A decade later, the two men are Montana’s most prominent Republican lawmakers, attending the same evangelical church in Bozeman, itself a node in the rapid rise of Christian nationalism fast transforming the state’s political landscape.
“As we await final delisting, we must do all that we can to ensure public safety, to stop the risks to human life, and to prevent further livestock depravation that is devastating Montana agriculture,” Daines said in a 2020 interview concerning the bears’ status in the state.
Though grizzlies do occasionally prey on livestock, the Republicans’ claims of widespread and devastating financial impacts overstate the scale of the problem. According to the Montana Department of Livestock, grizzly bears were responsible for killing 143 of Montana’s more than 2.7 million sheep and cattle in 2022, contributing to a loss of 0.000052 percent of the state’s livestock. The state paid ranchers $234,378.37 to compensate for those losses.
In his many years dealing with the conflicts that arise from expanding human and grizzly populations, Servheen has learned to separate positions from interests.
“I talk to many people about bears. Many times what they say is that: ‘I hate bears. We don’t want the federal government telling us what to do. We don’t like the Endangered Species Act. We don’t want grizzly bears to be in this area or around my property.’ Those are all positions,” he said. “The position discussions are worthless because you end up hitting a wall.”
Interests, like not wanting to lose livestock to grizzlies, are a different story. In the half century since grizzlies were added to the endangered species list, Servheen and a wider community of researchers and conservationists have developed an array of conflict management practices to address the inherent challenges of living with grizzlies: from compensation for ranchers, to the installation of electrified fences and food storage containers, to the relocation — and in some cases, removal — of problem bears.
“Trying to key in on what those interests are to people, and listening to them as opposed to telling them — I found that to be the most productive approach,” Servheen said.
Once interests are addressed, the work of underlining the value that large predators bring to an ecosystem — the kind of conversations that may prevent a hunter from becoming a poacher in a moment of unsupervised opportunity — can begin.
At the time of his retirement, Servheen believed the future of grizzly recovery was on solid ground. Conflict resolution efforts were catching on and succeeding; Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, or FWP, still hung on to its reputation for considered wildlife management; and the bear populations in northwest and southwest Montana were growing. Servheen felt that his life’s work was in good hands. That confidence has been shattered in the years since.
Servheen’s theory of recovery and change turns on a respect for science. It requires a willingness to moderate and move on from long held but out-of-date positions, and it demands that state wildlife professionals operate free from political pressure and influence. In Montana, Servheen argued, those prerequisites have been blown to bits.
“I couldn’t have seen this coming,” the veteran bear biologist said. “For years, I was leading the recovery program and advocating that we should recover grizzly bears and delist the bears and turn them over to state management because I had a lot of faith in the state, that the state was making management decisions based on science and facts.”
That’s no longer the case.
“I can’t support that given the politicians doing what they’re doing,” Servheen said. “And this has just happened in the past two years. It’s totally new.”
Then-Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., left, waves to constituents at the Crow Fair in Crow Agency, Mont., on Aug. 18, 2018.
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Wildlife governance in Montana, like most states, is managed by a panel of commissioners. Appointed by the governor, the commission sets regulations for the fish and wildlife agency — in this case, FWP. Montana law requires that those appointees be selected “without regard to political affiliation” and “solely for the wise management of the fish and wildlife of the state.”
Despite the apolitical requirements, Gianforte, Montana’s first Republican governor in a decade a half, populated his commission with a former running mate and a collection of high-dollar campaign donors — none of whom possessed professional wildlife management experience. He also tapped Henry “Hank” Worsech, the former executive director of the Montana Board of Outfitters, the licensing authority for Montana’s powerful political constituency of outfitters and guides, as director of FWP.
In years past, Democratic governors would veto the more extreme bills introduced by Republican lawmakers eager to liberalize wolf killing in Montana. Gianforte, by contrast, signed those measures into law. Worsech directed FWP to come up with plans for implementing the measures, and the commission gave them the green light. International outrage followed, as well as an ongoing federal review to determine whether wolves should be returned to the endangered species list.
Along with the many anti-wolf bills passed last session, Republican lawmakers also zeroed in on bears. Part of the push came from Republican state Rep. Paul Fielder, who also serves as the Montana Trappers Association’s liaison to FWP. Fielder hails from Thompson Falls, a tiny community in northwest Montana, a remote region with a reputation for attracting anti-government types that’s recently become awash in MAGA-inspired politics.
With Gianforte’s support, Fielder secured the re-legalization of hound hunting for black bears, a practice that Montana outlawed a century ago.
“He wrote this bill for something that was not happening in Montana for generations, and the Legislature, because it was proposed by a Republican, they all voted for it, and the governor signed it,” Servheen said.
Like the legalization of snares to catch and kill wolves — which Fielder sponsored and Gianforte signed — the hunting of black bears with hounds can also impact grizzlies, leading to dangers for the hounds, hunters, and grizzlies alike. (Fielder did not respond to an interview request.)
“It’s a miniscule number of people that want to do this,” Servheen said. “They’re a super isolated special interest, and the Legislature is going in and granting these people privileges to do things which are harmful to grizzly bears.”
“They’re a super isolated special interest, and the Legislature is going in and granting these people privileges to do things which are harmful to grizzly bears.”
Another bill signed by Gianforte in 2021 prohibited FWP from relocating problem bears, raising the possibility that first-time-offender bears would be shot on site. A third authorized ranchers to kill bears that they deemed as a threat to their livestock and left it to ranchers to define what constitutes a threat.
The onslaught prompted Servheen to speak out. In the heat of the 2021 legislative session, he wrote an op-ed for the Mountain Journal, a Bozeman-based conservation news website, connecting the Manifest Destiny-inspired thinking that led to mass predator extermination in the 1800s to Montana’s present moment.
“If this is allowed to continue,” he warned, “we stand to lose all that we have gained to build and maintain healthy natural ecosystems and repair the historic wrongs done to wildlife and nature by past generations.”
With a new legislative session underway, Republican lawmakers are pushing for further deregulation of predator hunting. Building on his 2021 black bear hound-hunting legislation, Fielder is now pursuing a bill that would eliminate the FWP commission’s authority to designate where that hunting occurs, increasing the likelihood of hound hunting in grizzly bear recovery zones.
“This is crazy,” Servheen said. “The commission is supposed to be the managers of wildlife. They’re supposed to be making those decisions. The Legislature should not be getting into the weeds of making detailed decisions about where wildlife are taken and how they’re taken. That is really inappropriate. They’re not experts in this.”
A grizzly near Swan Lake in Yellowstone National Park on June 6, 2015.
Photo: Neal Herbert/NPS
The big question now is whether the Northern Rockies states will win the right to manage their grizzly populations themselves.
As wildlife species listed under the Endangered Species Act recover, states must submit plans showing that they can manage the animals in such a way to sustain viable populations. Last month, FWP released a draft grizzly management plan for public review that sketched out a new framework for managing the bears.
The final decision on the delisting will fall to Martha Williams, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A veteran of the Montana wildlife management scene, Williams was director of FWP before joining the federal government. A lawyer by training and an expert in the Endangered Species Act, Williams was central in Montana’s efforts to attain state management of wolves more than a decade ago. Her appointment to head U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received enthusiastic support from Daines and his Democratic counterpart, Jon Tester.
Some wildlife advocates, though, have questioned the legality of Williams’s appointment. She lacks a scientific degree, which is required under federal law. Others worry that Daines’s support for her appointment could be a sign of her potential openness to delisting grizzlies.
Servheen pushed back on the notion that U.S. Fish and Wildlife is certain to give Montana Republicans their long-standing dream of legalized grizzly hunts.
“It’s not a foregone conclusion,” he said.
While it’s true that Montana has petitioned for delisting, Williams and her team have yet to determine whether that petition merits a review. The process for removing an animal from the endangered species list goes beyond raw numbers, Servheen pointed out. He argued the laws on the books and those being considered — the hound hunting and authorizing private citizens to kill grizzlies any time they feel their property is threatened — make it impossible for Montana to satisfy requirements to ensure continued grizzly recovery.
Grizzly bears have one of the slowest reproduction rates of any large mammal on the planet. They don’t bounce back from heavy human-caused mortality the way wolves do.
“You could have dead bears everywhere, and you would be way beyond the sustainable limit,” Servheen said. “Fish Wildlife and Parks has no ability to control it, therefore you don’t have an adequate regulatory mechanism.”
“They would treat the grizzly bear just like they’re now treating wolves. That’s what would happen.”
While the laws could be tweaked to please U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the federal agency considers the delisting question, Republicans in Montana have already revealed their anti-predator intentions, Servheen argued.
“As soon as the bear was delisted, then what’s to stop the Legislature from putting those laws right back in place?” he asked. “There’s nothing to stop them from doing that and given where they are and where they’re coming from and what they’re doing — it’s a clear indication that’s probably what they would do.”
“They would treat the grizzly bear just like they’re now treating wolves,” he said. “That’s what would happen.”
The current moment is as decisive as any in the history of grizzly bear recovery in the United States. A half-century of hard work that for many symbolizes the best of what conservation can be hangs in the balance. Servheen and others are fighting to turn the tide, but he worries it won’t be enough.
“I don’t see things getting any better,” he said. “I just see them getting worse, unfortunately.”