NRCS designs Blackfoot Challenge grizzly bear conflict reduction grant

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MISSOULA – Ranchers can use electric fences to keep grizzly bears and other carnivores away from calving grounds and backyards. It sounds like a win-win situation except that electric fencing can be expensive and going through electrified gates can be tedious and a bit risky.

Leave it Blackfoot Challenge to get around the problem by creating a better way of crossing: by installing electrified runners. That’s what Blackfoot Challenge staff pointed out at a Western Landowners Alliance conference this week.

“After twenty years or so, there started to be a lot of five-wire electric fencing in the landscape,” said Eric Graham, Blackfoot Challenge wildlife coordinator. “But the doors were a problem. You could go up and down the freeway, look at some places and see the doors wide open. It was just this frustration of having to open and close the doors.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear biologist Tim Manley several years ago developed electrified mats for use with poultry houses and sheds in the Flathead area, but their use had not caught on in the Blackfoot Valley. The Blackfoot Challenge therefore decided to make it happen.

About three years ago, Graham commissioned a company in Seeley Lake to build the first electric carpet to be tested. Then Brady Stone, son of Blackfoot Challenge president Jim Stone, volunteered to build a different style of rug.

To see if the mats would work, they built electric fence enclosures in areas of known bear activity, placed mats under driveways, and baited the enclosures with road-killed deer. They worked with FWP bear biologist Jamie Jonkel to make sure no endangered species laws were broken.

“To date, none of the grizzly bears have been able to access the deer,” Graham said. “So the real test was putting the rugs on the ranch sites. Like all these other things, how do you pay for it and make it sustainable in the future? “

The rugs they tested weren’t cheap, but Graham said the cheaper rugs don’t last. Most people use 20-foot rugs, which currently cost $ 3,450 each. Small 12-foot rugs cost $ 2,175. But Graham warned that material costs are on the rise.

Over the years, the Blackfoot Challenge has developed a number of programs to help landowners coexist with predators, including collecting carcasses to reduce attractants and riders. The programs have helped 500 participating landowners reduce conflict with wolves and grizzly bears by 90%.

But both programs must receive money each year. Landowners in the Blackfoot Valley participated in the Blackfoot Challenge, which could help raise some but not all of the money. The organization also collects critical data on wildlife movements and other environmental concerns in the region that it can use to support applications for programs or funding.

The federal government, namely the Natural Resources Conservation Service, offers agricultural subsidies, but they were developed for ad hoc demands, such as a new irrigation system.

In addition, grants face one of the agency’s resource issues. NRCS employees, like State Curator Tom Watson and State Conservation Assistant Jerry Shows, were unsure how they could help the Blackfoot Challenge because the mats do not address a defined resource issue. . But after former Blackfoot Challenge executive director Gary Burnett and others kept coming into his office for eight years to show him wildlife data and test results, Shows wanted to give it a try.

“It’s not that the answer is ‘no’ – the question we should be asking ourselves is ‘how do I get yes?’ I don’t want to say no to the Jim Stones and Denny Iversons, ”Shows said.

In 2018, the Farm Bill created the NRCS Conservation Innovation grants encourage innovative practices in working areas. Shows said the conduct mats are definitely innovative, and it didn’t hurt that they help protect an endangered federal species.

But an electric carpet was a new idea and Shows struggled to fit it into the agency’s criteria. Most fences keep livestock inside, not wall predators outside. He had to develop a payout rate. Most difficult of all, he had to work with two other states to get their membership on the payment schedule.

So, a few years ago, he started trying to convince his counterparts in Wyoming and Idaho.

“We encountered quite a bit of resistance,” Show said. “It didn’t seem to be going anywhere.”

Show tried to come up with a new scenario for electric fencing and rugs because its counterparts saw the need for it but didn’t think it would fit anywhere. They feared they would open Pandora’s Box, whether it would be used and abused statewide or in other states. But ultimately, they focused on the category of “wildlife structures”.

“It took a lot of work, burned a lot of bridges and drove a few people crazy,” Show said. “But sometimes you have to do certain things that cause it. We try to work on conflict on the part of animals, but humans also have conflict. “

The Blackfoot Challenge had to do its part by providing scientific data and helping to draft a targeted implementation plan for grizzly bear conflict mitigation, which limits funding to landowners in Powell and Missoula counties.

The plan covers the installation of 649 electric fences and walkway mats as well as the removal of certain fences. That’s why it won’t open Pandora’s Box, Show said, but another group may apply to use it in the future.

“It was a focused approach that really came from where we love to do conservation: from the grassroots. It came from the locals, the Jim Stones and the Denny Iversons, ”Show said. “The secondary benefit is that I feel more secure as a breeder who goes to these calving areas, sending my children to watch the calves. “

The targeted approach worked.

The Blackfoot Challenge received a Conservation Innovation Grant to install electric mats starting in fiscal 2022. This is when the Targeted Implementation Plan comes into effect for the next five years, and during this period, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program will help pay for the installation of electric fences.

NRCS grants don’t pay for everything. Deer Lodge environmentalist Josh Schrecengost said landowners and organizations need to have some skin in the game. So the NRCS will cover $ 3,445 for a 20-foot mat and $ 1.84 per foot for the installation of an electric fence.

“It won’t cover all of a producer’s expense when it installs it, but it does provide a pretty good chunk of it,” Schrecengost said. “The standard lifespan is 25 years on a fence. So it is expected that once the NRCS pays, it will maintain it for the life of this practice.

With the grant, the Blackfoot Challenge is once again paving the way for conflict reduction. Burnett, now executive director of the Heart of the Rockies Initiative, said he had received calls indicating there was a lot of interest from local groups in other states.

Stone said it wouldn’t be without some visionaries from the Blackfoot Valley in the 1970s.

“I think we all agree that we’re right here, maintaining this landscape when we don’t really own anything,” Stone said. “But I think at the end of the day we do a lot of things, and that’s done through this next room. I don’t know – I’m just very lucky to be here in a place and my son takes over the ranch, Danny does the same with his family – it just makes you proud. There is simply no other word on it.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at [email protected]

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