MISSOULA, Mont. – As grizzly bears move from the northern ranges of Montana onto the plains, wildlife agencies are scrambling to remove the population from endangered species protection. But opponents of the delisting have hinted that legal challenges and regulatory hurdles lie ahead.
On Wednesday, a contingent of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee reviewed the threatened status of the grizzly bear population in the Northern Continental Divide region in preparation for the scheduled mid-2018 delisting. An estimated 1,000 grizzly bears live in the region and have recently started moving along river corridors onto the eastern plains, where they’ve occasionally run into trouble with landowners who resent dealing with the large carnivore.
Around 70 people crowded into a Missoula conference room to hear Hilary Cooley, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Coordinator, clarify the three tasks remaining before the agency could remove the Continental Divide grizzly bears from the endangered species list.
“We are required to evaluate whether recovery goals are met and also to evaluate the threats. So we’ve started a process to do just that and it’s kind of long,” Cooley said.
When the USFWS developed recovery criteria for the population in 1993, it didn’t account for all the threats that grizzly bears face. Five years later, a court settlement made threats a required consideration.
In the meantime, research indicated that as more people, vehicles and livestock invade an area, the chance of conflict that can lead to grizzly-bear deaths increases. So Cooley said the USFWS is finishing a proposal that analyzes threats related to road density, recreational sites such as campgrounds, and livestock allotments within the core population area that centers on Glacier National Park and large wilderness areas to the south. That information should be released within the next few weeks, and a public comment period will follow.
But the identified threats should not come as a surprise, Cooley said, because they were mentioned in the Draft Conservation Strategy for the Northern Continental Divide population issued in 2013. Conservation strategies are intended to provide guidance for managing grizzly bears once they are delisted.
Because grizzly bear management can be contentious, the agencies allowed the public more than the original 90 days to comment on the strategy. Then, work on the document took a back seat as the IGBC prioritized delisting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population of about 750 grizzly bears, which finally occurred five months ago.
Now with the Northern Continental Divide population back in the spotlight, on Wednesday USFWS bear biologist Jennifer Fortin-Noreus rattled through the highlights of the 138 concerns raised by the public regarding the conservation strategy. One issue is that the most recent bear counts occurred in 2004, making the current population size uncertain. Because of this, some contend that bear mortality limits should be more conservative. People also asked for more detail regarding hunting and demanded mandatory population triggers for relisting.
Subcommittee chairman Jeff Williams told the 15 committee members that they needed to incorporate public comments in their portions of the conservation strategy before producing a final draft by April. He wanted to submit the strategy to the IGBC before its June meeting because the committee is pushing to delist the Northern Continental Divide population this summer. More discussion is slated for the Dec. 12 IGBC meeting.
“We’re on a very quick timeline. Most of the comments are about habitat. That’s where the bulk of the lift will be,” Williams said.
The habitat assessment may be part of what causes a delay in delisting. On Wednesday, a few commenters noted that while the upcoming threat analysis looks at habitat security, the USFWS failed to assess habitat quality and how it could be affected by climate change and activities on nearby private land.
WildEarth Guardians wildlife program director Bethany Cotton hinted at a legal challenge over the rush to finalize the conservation strategy.
“It’s been nearly five years since that draft was released, and there’s been some very significant changes since then, both in the science and also what’s happened on the ground. There’s been unprecedented mortality, the GYE delisting, new climate data, habitat changes. If you move forward without sending it back out to public comment, it makes you exceptionally vulnerable under our nation’s key environmental laws,” Cotton said.
Biologists reported that east of the Continental Divide, humans caused 14 bear deaths this year.
Probably the biggest issue for biologists and wildlife advocates is the piecemeal delisting of grizzly bear populations in the five recovery regions of the northern Rocky Mountains. The USFWS is delisting them one by one as “distinct population segments” under the Endangered Species Act. But such populations are supposed to differ from each other genetically.
Already, conservation groups have warned that misapplication of the “distinct population segment” concept could be the linchpin of a potential lawsuit to stop the Northern Continental Divide delisting, just as it was for a 2008 legal challenge to the gray-wolf delisting.
Scientists like University of Montana geneticist Fred Allendorf say genetic data show the Yellowstone population is noticeably different from the others, so it could be delisted alone. But the other four populations, including the Northern Continental Divide and the Selkirk, all share the same genetic traits. Therefore, the Northern Continental Divide population should not be delisted by itself, Allendorf said.
Grizzly bears were listed as threatened in the lower 48 states in 1975 when fewer than 700 bears remained. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee is composed of representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, state land and wildlife agencies, and tribal and Canadian representatives.