HELENA, Mont. (CN) – Protection of grizzly bear and Canada lynx populations is often cited in lawsuits involving logging projects in the West, but grizzlies outside of Yellowstone National Park may be removed from federal protection this summer.
Both grizzlies and lynx populations are listed as “threatened” and therefore protected under the Endangered Species Act. Grizzly bears were removed from the threatened list in 2007 and relisted after a lawsuit. But they could be delisted again as early as this summer on almost 20,000 acres in the greater Yellowstone National Park region in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
The lynx population fluctuates with the supply of their main food source: snowshoe hares, which are being adversely affected by the changing climate and disruptions to forest hiding cover. The federal government listed lynx as threatened 2000, after regulations governing forest management activities on federal lands were deemed inadequate.
Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, who along with the Native Ecosystems Council recently cited harm to grizzlies and lynx in a lawsuit to halt the Telegraph Creek Project west of Helena, Montana. He recalled going into an area near the proposed project where lynx had been located.
“Then they did some thinning projects in the area, and the lynx disappeared,” Garrity said.
Garrity joined the coalition who sued over the 2007 grizzly bear delisting effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said the location of the timber project in the Helena National Forest is a critical travel corridor for grizzly bears to move between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
Grizzly bears came under the protection of the Endangered Species Act more than 40 years ago. State and federal officials believe that the grizzly population on nearly 20,000 acres in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana are up from 136 in 1975 to 700 in recent counts, and should be managed by those states.
“It’s a distinct population segment, meaning it can stand on its own,” said Ken McDonald, wildlife administrator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Their core habitat there is pretty well full, which is part of the reason for their population growth to have flattened; there’s reduced cub survival and productivity, with more males getting pushed out – which implies that territory is full.”
But not everyone agrees with McDonald’s assessment. Grizzlies only occupy about 1 percent of their historic habitat, and some scientists believe that delisting them is a political rather than scientific move.
According to scientists, early population estimates for the greater Yellowstone area might have been closer to 200-300 bears – meaning that in four decades of intense conservation efforts under federal protection, grizzly bear numbers may only have doubled or tripled. And with their main food source – whitebark pine nuts – being depleted by beetle infestations and the warming climate, their future is far from secure.
“They’re moving out because there’s not enough food,” said Doug Peacock, an author and outspoken opponent to delisting the bears. “Their argument is that there’s so many bears there, they’re crowed like in a sardine can. I think that’s bullshit. They’re moving out because there’s not enough food because of the global warming element. That change is really important in Yellowstone, because the whitebark pine tree is predicted to be functionally extinct in seven years. Ninety-nine percent of those whitebark pine trees are dead.
“An island ecosystem will never make it. They’re doomed to extinction without that corridor.”
McDonald agreed a corridor is important, and it’s one of his management goals – but not a delisting requirement.
“Recent genetics work shows the Yellowstone population is in really good shape; they’re not inbreeding and the population is big enough that it’s not a concern,” McDonald said, adding that studies show grizzlies are “generalists” and will turn to other food sources when necessary.
“Forty percent of the bears are in areas without whitebark pine, and they’re doing fine,” he said.
Gauging the Canada lynx population is a bit more difficult than it is for grizzly bears. Lynx are medium-sized cats characterized by long ear tufts, a short bobbed tail and unusually large paws that act like snowshoes in deep snow.
They’re thought to be abundant in the boreal forests of Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon, where cool, damp forests make for good hare habitat. Historically, about half of the United States reported lynx sightings, but they’re now mainly present in the Rocky Mountains and upper-tier states like Maine, Minnesota and Montana. However, they sometimes breed in Utah, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York.
In the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, the lynx population follows a general 10-year “boom and bust” cycle of snowshoe hares. But in the contiguous United States, there’s no evidence the hare and lynx cycles are similar, according to Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John Squires, who’s been studying lynx for the past decade.
“There’s places where snowshoe hares live that you don’t have lynx, but there’s no places that lynx live that don’t have snowshoe hares,” he said.
Officials also don’t have a good handle on how many lynx are present in the United States, or whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing overall.
“Figuring out the abundance of lynx is exceedingly difficult to do,” Squires said from his office in Missoula, Montana. “They’re secretive and live in very low densities, so there’s no reliable way to count them.”
As part of a four-year study in Colorado, Squires and his team trap lynx and mark them. They then set out more traps and try to extrapolate the lynx population in a certain area from the ratio of marked versus unmarked lynx. But the federal government allocates little money for this type of research.
Squires also looks at the impacts of trees killed by beetles, warming climates with lower snowpacks, and other changes to lynx habitat. The lynx’s oversized paws allow for easier access to hares during the winter, but lower snowpacks may make it easier for other predators to capture the hares. Squires isn’t sure how the lynx will handle the competition.
It’s also unclear what impact logging of dead trees and other forest-management activities – not to mention subdivisions and roads in previously untrammeled area – will have on the lynx population, Squires said. But he added that he thinks there’s room for mixed uses in natural forests while protecting the lynx population.
Thinking across the landscape, and including tree experts, climatologists and others to collaborate in studies with wildlife biologists will enhance their knowledge and possibly lead to better population estimates, Squires said.
He said he’s frustrated with the perception, based on numerous lawsuits filed to halt timber management projects, that they’ll harm lynx habitat.
“There’s this hatred of lynx by the public which is so upsetting, because we can and do manage the species where there is multiple use on the forest,” he said. “We believe we can balance that with good information. The role of science is important here – which isn’t popular right now with the current administration – but it’s certainly an important tool because it better helps us understand that balance.”