Agencies Ponder Next Steps for Northwest Grizzly Bears

CHOTEAU, Mont. (CN) – With grizzly-bear recovery potentially complete in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, agencies are daring to plan for a time when the bears are under state control.

A lot of balls remained in the air as the Interagency Grizzly Bear Executive Committee met to consider its five-year plan. The committee is juggling the pending delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population from the endangered species list, along with the myriad of challenges posed by the six other regions of grizzly recovery in the Northwest.

One lawsuit currently on appeal could send the committee back to the drawing board.

In October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argued against a 2011 ruling that small populations of wolves couldn’t be separated and delisted one at a time.

“The wolf ruling is a district court ruling, so it’s not binding on the (Fish and Wildlife) service with respect to grizzly bears,” Matt Hogan of the USFWS said. “So we are operating under the assumption that the service is going to prevail in their appeal of that litigation.”

If the D.C. appeals court upholds the ruling, the Yellowstone population delisting would be abandoned, and the USFWS would have to wait until all seven grizzly bear populations could be to delisted at once.

That would erase the work of the past few years, which has involved the committee’s plans for the delisting of the Yellowstone population. The final decision was expected this fall, but many at the IGBC meeting had heard that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke planned to make the announcement on June 27 at the Western Governor’s Association meeting in Whitefish, Montana.

Attorneys for conservation groups said Tuesday they are ready to file lawsuits as soon as Zinke makes the announcement. They contend that although the Yellowstone population has recovered to around 700 bears, removing Endangered Species Act protection could cause the population to plummet. Humans cause a number of bear deaths even with ESA protection, and climate change is also affecting the bears’ habitat.

But ranchers and others in the area are pressing for the delisting as grizzly bears expand their territory and wander out onto the plains around Yellowstone.

Northern Montana faces a similar issue, where bears from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem near Glacier National Park are beginning to trundle across the plains to the east.

The Northern Continental Divide population is next in line for delisting.

Jim Williams of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said he expected a delisting rule by the end of 2019.

Pondera County Commissioner Thomas Kuka said it couldn’t come soon enough – he  spotted 11 grizzly bears on his ranch last summer. He worries about his nephews who raise sunflowers and wants them to be able to shoot bears if needed.

Rancher Gene Curry, a longtime Montana Stock Growers board member, echoed the observation that more bears have been appearing on farms and ranches in the past five years, but he cautioned landowners against taking matters into their own hands while the bears are still listed. Instead, he encouraged them to learn to avoid bears in the first place.

“We all know that there’s been lethal removal of bears by landowners – that’s a fact of life. The three S’s of ‘shoot, shovel and shut up’ have happened. And there’s a lot of landowners that would like to continue that. But your odds of getting caught are getting higher,” Curry said. “These mitigation measures that we can do – fencing, carcass removal – are voluntary. But are we going to force landowners to do that? Most of us don’t take kindly to regulations that impede our lifestyle. So the carrot is a way better option than the stick.”

Rancher Gary Burnett has been coexisting with wolves and grizzly bears for years in the Blackfoot Valley west of the Continental Divide. After the landowners of the Blackfoot Challenge, a nonprofit dedicated to conservation, reduced livestock conflict by 90 percent using electric fencing, carcass removal and cooperation, he’s now teaching other landowner groups around Montana how to get the same results.

Martha Williams, the new Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director, said she hoped agencies could take the lessons learned from the Yellowstone population and do a better job delisting the Northern Continental Divide population. That includes taking more time and not developing a conservation strategy, recovery criteria and a delisting rule all at once.

Ultimately, hunting will be one of the tools that states use to control the grizzly bear population. But a hunt may involve only a few bears if the population can’t sustain more than that, Williams said. The details have yet to be hashed out through FWP commission meetings and the public process.

Bonnie Rice, Sierra Club Greater Yellowstone representative, asked if the states would be willing to place a multi-year moratorium on trophy hunting after the bear is delisted.

“Obviously, it’s a tricky subject,” Williams said. “While I understand some groups find trophy hunting abhorrent, there are those groups that profoundly support it. We have to be careful not to conflate hunting with the long-term conservation of the species.”

Hogan told conservation groups not to use delisting lawsuits to preclude hunting even though the majority of public comment is against delisting because of objections to hunting the bear.

“The public comment period is not a vote. The Endangered Species Act says once a species is recovered, it needs to be delisted so we can turn our attention to other species in need of protection,” Hogan said.

One of the last grizzly populations to be delisted will be that of the Northern Cascades in Washington, and Montana’s struggles may lend insight into how Washington’s own delisting will play out.

The Northern Cascades subcommittee plans to have its environmental impact statement complete by January and will issue its decision on trying to recover the population by June 2018. Its major hurdle is a law recently passed by the Washington state legislature making it illegal to transplant bears from outside the state.

To that end, in Montana the executive committee’s new five-year plan includes a goal to increase public and political support for grizzly bear recovery and delisting. Burnett encouraged the committee  to build relationships with stakeholders in each region to find the appropriate answers.

“What’s really at risk? What’s at risk is livelihoods and bears if we can’t come up with a reasonable solution to move this thing forward. The solution is only going to be sustainable if it’s durable, and it’s only durable if we come up with something together,” Burnett said.

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