A pioneer in his field, Dan Carney closes out a distinguished three-decade career as Blackfeet tribal bear biologist, navigating a tricky reservation landscape of 40,000 cows, unique laws and roaming grizzlies

Story by Colleen O’Brien | Photography by Tony Bynum

Hide teeming with carrion beetles, skull, hooves and spine, as well as a few maggots squirming in an eye socket — that’s what’s left of the calf Dan Carney examines. Carney, the Blackfeet tribal wildlife biologist and director of the Blackfeet Threatened and Endangered Species Program, wears bright blue medical gloves as we stand in the morning sun. He scrutinizes the spine where it meets the head. Carney will determine if a grizzly bear killed the calf. If so, the state will reimburse the rancher for his loss. He looks for puncture wounds, a crushed skull. If any of the calf’s flesh remained, he’d keep an eye out for hemorrhaging.

It’s Mother’s Day, 2018. The Blackfeet Indian Reservation has mostly melted out from a brutal winter. Earlier this spring, Carney and his staff removed over 20 dead cows from a single ranch so they didn’t attract bears. Now the land lifts and dips a brilliant green. Patches of white linger in the shadows. The mountains of Glacier National Park, still drenched with near-record snow, poke at fast moving clouds. A herd of skinny cows mills about the pasture.

Carney drops the remains and shakes his head. This one wasn’t killed by a bear. He and the rancher talk volunteer firefighting, trucks and tenders, valves and throttles. A native of Pennsylvania, Carney has lived on the Blackfeet Reservation most of his life.

The rancher tells us how, a few days ago, he chased a grizzly from his herd with a four-wheeler. He says he made sure not to cross the line, not to harass it. He tells how a ranch hand on a neighboring spread posted a video on Facebook. It showed him running down a grizzly in his truck, relentlessly chasing it without a bovine in sight. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) folks caught wind of it, came up and issued the hired-hand a ticket.

“You can do that,” the rancher says. “You just shouldn’t post a video of it.”

But it’s the next thing the rancher tells us that really rankles Carney.

“We’ll have problems all summer ‘til they delist them and let us take care of the problem ourselves.”

Back in the truck, Carney tells me that particular rancher should know better. The man has attended public meetings and Carney has spoken to him personally. He should realize that even if grizzlies lose their threatened status, it won’t become open season. By Montana law, it would still be illegal to kill a grizzly unless it’s in the act of attacking livestock or a person. Trouble is, Montana law doesn’t apply on the reservation. Come August, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council (BTBC) will pass a resolution making it illegal to kill a grizzly unless a person’s life is immediately threatened. But right now, on this bright Sunday in May, there’s no Blackfeet tribal law regarding grizzlies, so Carney has no statute to cite, no sure way to convince this rancher it will never be in his best interest to shoot bears, even if they’re delisted.

When the Blackfeet Reservation’s grizzlies headed into their dens this fall, they didn’t know it but they were without the biologist who has looked out for their welfare for 31 years. When they emerge, they will most likely still be protected by the Endangered Species Act, but probably not for long. Carney’s retirement at the end of June came in the midst of the USFWS’s plan to move the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem’s population of grizzly bears off the threatened species list. The agency has since put that plan on hold due to ongoing litigation over the delisting of Yellowstone’s population of grizzlies.

Before a species can be delisted, sufficient legal protection needs to exist. Carney senses pressure from the Trump administration in D.C. has dictated the delisting timeline — a timeline that’s not a priority for the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. The BTBC reserves their right to set their own agenda and when federal agencies attempt to tell them what to do and when, it aggravates a relationship fraught with historical injustice.

In addition to the need for legal protection, Carney believes the current population trend model has flaws. It does not account for bears that migrate out of the recovery zone. The demographic monitoring area (DMA) ends with a line on the map. It’s a line that bears cross more and more often as they move east onto the plains. Bears that disperse outside the DMA and grizzly deaths that occur there are not counted, leaving the population number inaccurate.

Carney was the only member of the NCDE subcommittee to vote against sending the Conservation Strategy — a document that outlines how bears will be protected and managed in the wake of delisting — to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee for their review. Glacier Park Naturalist Pat Hagan says, “With Dan, it’s never about the politics; it’s always about the bears.”

Carney’s spectacular view of the south end of Glacier National Park from his living room window near East Glacier Park.

The Blackfeet Reservation’s million-and-a-half acres contain aspen parklands, abundant lakes and streams and miles of undeveloped rolling prairie. Carney believes that sufficient habitat exists, but “it’s not habitat that kills bears, people do.” With over 40,000 head of cattle, four times as many as there are people, the reservation is one of the few places on the planet where so many grizzlies live among so many cows. When I ask Carney how much time he spends dealing with cows as compared to bears, he says, “There’s no distinction. Managing bears means dealing with cattle. I don’t begrudge anyone their living.”

“He takes a public service approach,” says John Waller, a Glacier Park wildlife biologist who has worked closely with Carney for years. “He’s very quick to respond, which builds confidence that bear managers will be there so people don’t decide to do the ‘shoot, shovel and shut up’ thing.”

Waller credits Carney with building social tolerance for bears. Carney’s accomplished this feat by working with cows and the reservation’s ranchers, by hauling carcasses bloated with rot and rife with maggots away from ranch homes and out of pastures. He’s made himself and his technicians available to deal with any problem anyone on the far-flung reservation has with a bear. He’s set culvert traps and snares to catch bears that attack livestock, raid dumpsters or act habituated.

Carney’s successfully written hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants. One purchases pepper spray that Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife sells to reservation hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts for $5. Carney says making pepper spray widely available helps allay fear, and that’s good for bears. He’s also a pioneer in advancing the science of bear management. Back in 1995, he and his colleagues thought to collect hair samples from bears they collared. They surmised correctly that a new kind of analysis using DNA could be applied to animals.

He’s driven hundreds of thousands of miles in his trucks and bears have chased him into those well-traveled vehicles more than once. He’s darted, collared and occasionally had to kill the creatures to which he’s devoted his career. He’s done it all with a kind heart, strong stomach and unwavering integrity.

“He’s been instrumental in bringing bears to recovery,” Waller says.

Six weeks later, Carney’s last Monday on the job, he and his staff of eight are still dealing with dead calves. Dustin Weatherwax, Carney’s successor, tells him about two carcasses. A rancher outside of East Glacier discovered 150 head of someone else’s cattle mixed in with his own. When he cut them from his herd, he found the dead calves and called BF&W. Carney asks if they set a trap. Weatherwax says no. Carney’s visibly frustrated. He tells Weatherwax they need to find the owner “or that will come back around to bite us.” For the last three decades, Carney has made it procedure to set a culvert trap whenever there’s a livestock depredation. Otherwise, as Waller pointed out, and the rancher we met on Mother’s Day suggested, people will shoot bears whether or not they can tell if it’s the one that killed their stock.

After Carney arranges a pilot, he downloads the locations of his collared bears and studies them on Google Earth. When he first started in 1987, he flew twice a week with a topographical map, a compass and Polaroid camera. Now GPS collars map the bears’ locations every few hours. For the purposes of population monitoring, Carney needs to determine the number of cubs that a bear named LT has this year. He knows she’s traveling with at least one because he’s seen tracks. Carney studies the map and points out a bear named Jordan. She’s off the reservation to the east, on a ranch near Valier.

Once he knows where he’s flying, Carney heads outside to see about the dead calves. Flies swarm over the back of a pickup. The carcasses look a lot like the one we saw on Mother’s Day — hooves, hide, skull, but there’s no spine left on these and it’s 20 degrees warmer, so they smell way worse. One of the heads hits the asphalt as a technician lifts it from the truck. Carney dons his blue gloves and says, “I can see why you didn’t set a trap.” Whatever got these calves is long gone. As he lifts the hide, sunlight pours through a set of distinct slices inflicted by the grizzly’s teeth. Both skulls are crushed.

We’re in the air circling a copse of trees where telemetry tells us LT’s bedded with her offspring. Cloud shadows play across Glacier’s peaks. Distances shrink. The reservation is ribboned with two-track dirt roads. Bits of snow still linger. The wind bounces us like a bobber. LT’s not showing herself despite, or maybe because of, the plane buzzing in circles. It’s not uncommon for the bears not to cooperate. Carney is patient, accepting of the fact that bear management is not on the bears’ agenda much like the USFWS’s delisting timeline is not on the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council’s.

As part of the population monitoring, Carney keeps collars on five or six bears. To do so, he developed a method that’s more accurate than the standard culvert trap, which often catches male grizzlies, black bears and other wildlife, none of which Carney needs to collar nor wants to handle.

Folks call BF&W whenever they spot a dead cow, road-killed moose, rotting horse — anything that might attract bears. Carney and his staff schlep that bait to a remote spot and set up a motion-triggered camera. A day or two later they retrieve the camera’s SD card to see which bears have been feeding on the carcass. They’re looking for females, hoping to see a griz with cubs. Once they know a breeding female is on the bait, Carney sets up a tree stand. Armed with a specially modified dart gun, he climbs up to wait. Carney has affixed a fishing reel to the barrel so that when he darts the bear and it runs, he and his staff can follow the line to the tranquilized sow. The cubs stay close and bounce about the periphery while Carney and his techs take hair samples and measurements and affix a collar. Carney says much of his job is plain fun, like sitting in a tree stand watching bears: “I’d do that recreationally.” 

Back on the ground, Carney drives to the office. His staff answered a call from a rancher down south on Badger Creek. They tell Carney it looks like a black bear killed this calf. Carney says that’s only the third time in his career a black bear, not a grizzly, has been the culprit. We get back in the truck and head for where LT has her progeny, hoping we can get a visual on the ground of what we couldn’t from the air.

Working for the Blackfeet Tribe, Carney has enjoyed some freedoms his state and federal colleagues do not — shooting from helicopters with fewer regulations to follow, thinner policy binders, re-tooling dart guns to suit his needs without a study or safety committee hearing. But as a trade-off, he’s navigated a cultural divide between Blackfeet natives and non-natives, and weathered some tribal political storms. One Monday he came to work and the administrative assistant hugged him. She told him how sorry she was. He asked her why. She said, “You don’t know?” Then she broke it to him that he’d been laid off. So he drove home and started staining his house. He said he figured he’d get to enjoy a few weeks of nice weather “and then there’d be hunting season.”

A new tribal council had been seated and inherited a dire financial situation. They informed all tribal departments they had to make cuts. Carney had told his boss at the time that if he fired Carney’s crew of technicians, he would have to fire him, too. So the man did. He just didn’t inform Carney.

The phone started to ring. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in Billings, which funds much of Carney’s department, had caught wind of the situation. One of the new council members told Carney’s boss he needed to rehire him. When the boss asked Carney to come back, Carney told him he had made some plans and would see him in a few days.

We’re on a hillside rampant with silky phacelia looking west into Glacier’s St. Mary Valley. It’s the view they print on postcards. LT is still not cooperating. Carney has her signal coming in clearly, but she’s not showing herself or her offspring. We drive a steep two track to get a different angle on the spot where LT’s hunkered. Carney finds tracks. The feet appear endearingly small, but the exact number of little ones remains a mystery for today.

As we drive Duck Lake Road, Carney gets a call. He doesn’t own a cell phone and flips open the one he uses for work. Mike Madel, an FWP bear specialist, asks if Carney has heard about the cub killed on the highway near Valier. It’s sad news. Carney is sure it’s one of Jordan’s cubs, another bear counted as part of the NCDE population whose death won’t be subtracted because she died outside of the demographic monitoring area. Carney knows these bears, their history, where they travel, how many cubs they have, where they den, who their mother is. And when one’s killed, well, now he knows that, too.

Carney heads home after leaving the office. He says the job has been a good fit or he wouldn’t have done it for so long.

“As much as I don’t like killing or even trapping bears if it isn’t necessary, a bear jumping at the end of the cable trying to get at you is exciting,” he says. “The exhilaration, the adrenaline rush is part of my enjoyment of the job.”

Last winter’s deep snow has given way to a riot of color. Lupine, geranium, biscuit root and arnica sway in the breeze. Next week, Carney won’t go into the office, but he’s not finished advocating for bears. He’d like to advise the new tribal council on delisting and help get a law on the books to protect grizzlies on the reservation. He’ll keep abreast of the delisting process and do what he can to ensure the bears’ well being. He smiles. “I like being around bears.” The sun is headed toward the mountains, but it’s high summer in the Northern Rockies and there’s a lot of light left.