The Grizzly Cost of Coexistence: Funding the Great Bear’s Future

In part one of this essay, I laid out the ingredients for successful coexistence with grizzly bears, and why we need more resources.  Here I delve into the costs and some ideas for meeting funding needs.  

Now more than ever, we need to be innovative in thinking about how to meet the need for funds to support grizzly bear coexistence work. Even with strong laws such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and public support for reducing conflicts, recovery efforts will fail if resources are lacking.

During my decades of experience with grizzly bear conservation, I have found that people with different values and perspectives can agree on the need for more funding for bear-resistant dumpsters, electric fence, education, and more.

Since the onus of living with bears falls on relatively few people, but with broad benefits for society, it is reasonable for our government to provide the lion’s share of funding to support nonlethal coexistence. As a society, we subsidize public values all the time. For example, last year the National Endowment for the Arts spent $80 million to support the arts. We also spent over $2 billion last year to underwrite the cost of building new sports stadiums.

According to a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, we subsidize grazing on public lands to the tune of $123 million annually (or an average of $64/cow), but without accounting for the ecological damage done. (Other studies estimate that taxpayers subsidize public lands grazing at two to three times that amount). More relevant to grizzlies, using GAO estimates, ranchers who graze roughly 9,000 cow/calf pairs on National Forest lands in Wyoming’s Upper Green River area receive nearly $576,000 annually in subsides – even though their subpar grazing practices have created the largest mortality sink for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Rather than requiring improved husbandry practices, the government recently rewarded these privileged ranchers by allowing them to kill an additional 72 grizzlies during the next 10 years.

On the other hand, citizens who enjoy watching wildlife generate roughly $142 billion and 1.4 million jobs nationally (see the 2011 report by US Fish and Wildlife Service). In Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana alone, wildlife watching generates about $2 billion each year. In Yellowstone Park, where seeing a grizzly bear is always high on the viewing list, sight-seeing tourists bring $629.6 million to the local economy each year.

Of course, these figures do not account for the aesthetic, spiritual and other benefits we place on the presence of grizzly bears. Given that grizzlies enrich our lives in so many ways, we all have a stake in ensuring that conflicts are reduced as much as possible. But coexistence is not cheap.

Costs of Coexistence Infrastructure 

For example, bear-proofing a single garbage-disposal site costs something like $10,000 to $20,000, not including maintenance. Bear-resistant garbage cans cost about $400 each.

On private ranchlands, one-time costs for a carcass composting facility can run about $20,000, and annual operating costs around $25,000. On the upside, if more facilities come online, costs will almost certainly drop because of efficiencies of scale.

The cost of electric fencing around calving areas varies greatly depending on the length and complexity of the fence, but can cost as much as $10,000. Pure-bred livestock guardian dogs from Eastern Europe are expensive too—around $2,000-$3,000 per dog, not considering the substantial food bill.

Structures to facilitate highway crossings and reduce collisions are the most expensive of all coexistence options. For example, Alberta just approved $20 million to build an overpass near Banff Park and an underpass near Crowsnest Pass.  Many millions would be required to provide safe passage across transportation corridors for grizzlies within and between Northern Rockies ecosystems.

Estimates for comprehensive upgrades of sanitation infrastructure could run $50,000 to $100,000 per watershed, but less in places where some infrastructure already exists.

Even though it’s difficult to come up with a full estimate of costs, comprehensive coexistence will undoubtedly cost millions of dollars annually for all of the grizzly bear ecosystems in the Northern Rockies.

Carnivore Coexistence Fund: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Over the years I have collaborated with coexistence experts, agency personnel, tribal representatives, and livestock producers to create a new federally funded program to support grizzly bear coexistence efforts. In one attempt, all large carnivores were included.

This idea first surfaced in the late 1990s among Wyoming Game and Fish officials who sought additional funds to support state grizzly bear management—partly to facilitate removal of federal protections. The agency suggested establishing a $40 million federal endowment fund to support coexistence between people and federally-protected large carnivores in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The fund would have been managed by the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Idaho and Montana officials quickly jumped on board, as did Governors of the three states. The time appeared auspicious given that Montana’s Senator Conrad Burns chaired the Interior Appropriations Committee and could have made it happen.

I saw benefit in the initiative while disagreeing with the states’ cynical motivates. As staff of the Sierra Club at the time, I worked to garner support from members across the country.  Other groups such as Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife Federation, and the Wildlife Management Institute worked to support the initiative as well.

Senator Burns chose not to support this effort but instead chose to fund a massive program to estimate the size of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) grizzly bear population using DNA-based methods. Perhaps needless to say, his move was cynical (a theme?), and designed to set the stage for removing ESA protections for the NCDE grizzly bear population.

Shortfalls in funding for coexistence efforts have only increased over time. About ten years ago, on behalf of Natural Resources Defense Council, I again collaborated with tribal representatives, conflict specialists, political leaders, and ranchers to promote new funding for grizzly bear coexistence in a package intended for inclusion in the federal Farm Bill. The goal was to provide enough funding over a long-enough period of time to make a difference in a particular locale, and, based on that, to facilitate learning that would extrapolate to other landscapes.

Although many ranchers were supportive, the more ideological leaders of various livestock organizations were not. The proposal collapsed when hardline leaders of the Montana Stockgrowers Association insisted that any new funds underwrite killing grizzlies.

Despite past failures, the idea of a fund for nonlethal coexistence work is worth revisiting. The government is the obvious source of money, but not the only one. Some of the many wealthy individuals in our region could also help, as some already have.

Other Funding Options   

At a national level, a new tax on backpacks, binoculars, and other recreational and wildlife watching equipment could not only help pay to support coexistence with grizzlies, but also all wildlife that is not typically hunted. A new tax on recreation gear could mimic the taxes on arms, ammunition, and fishing equipment imposed by the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act and the 1950 Dingell-Johnson Act.

Today, taxes generated by the Pittman-Robertson and Dingall-Johnson Acts together with hunting and fishing license fees account for about 80% of the funding for state wildlife management agencies across the country. One perverse outcome of current funding structures is a dominant bias towards serving hunters and anglers and producing animals to be hunted or fished under auspices of “harvestable surplus.” (This problem is explored in other essays here and here).

A new tax on outdoor gear could level the playing field, putting “non-game” wildlife such as grizzlies on equal footing with elk and trout. This is turn could contribute to reforming state wildlife management agencies to become more responsive to a public that is demanding that wildlife be managed for intrinsic values even as interest in hunting declines.

So far, the powerful companies that produce outdoor recreation gear have resisted a new tax on their products, opting instead to support an approach that would allocate a portion of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) for support of non-game wildlife management under the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA). This Act has been recently introduced in Congress.

A downside of this approach is that it would perversely tie wildlife conservation to proceeds generated by leasing access to oil and gas, in turn leading to often irreversible ecological damage.  Another is that only 5% of the fund would support imperiled species recovery at a time when Congress has reduced funding for ESA programs in the US Fish and Wildlife Service to starvation levels. But, if passed, RAWA could generate over a billion dollars for wildlife conservation that benefits animals such as bats, birds, bears, and more.

What Next?

Any possible federal mechanism for funding conservation of non-hunted wildlife has pros and cons. And in these distracted times securing new government funds for programs that benefit our national welfare is especially challenging. This challenge makes the path to securing resources for grizzly bear coexistence work unclear.

But what I can say for certain is that the bottom will fall out of funding for coexistence if federal protections for the grizzly are removed…along with incentives that the Endangered Species Act currently provides for people to invest in coexistence.

We must do better with the resources we now have, even as we seek new funding to expand our coexistence infrastructure and increase the cadre of skilled specialists. We can start by focusing on shared real-world problems as part of an effort to bring people together who may otherwise be on opposite sides of ideological fences.

Who knows? We might discover that we have more in common with bears and each other than we had previously imagined – to the benefit of bears, our communities, and ourselves.

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Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.

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