At its year-end meeting this week, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee reviewed the status of six Northwestern grizzly bear populations and discussed what’s needed for the species to recover over the next five years.
The committee of representatives of state wildlife agencies, federal land agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Alberta and British Columbia, Canada recently oversaw the process of delisting the Yellowstone subpopulation of grizzly bears after the population had reached the goals of 500 bears total and 48 females with cubs.
As a result, in late July the USFWS removed Yellowstone bears from threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.
Wildlife groups and tribes sued immediately in Montana Federal Court to stop the delisting, arguing that the bear was listed in 1975 as one species, so the Yellowstone population was too isolated and could not be delisted without the other populations around Montana and Idaho.
An Aug. 2 District of Columbia appeals court ruling bolstered that assertion. U.S. Circuit Judge Patricia Millett criticized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for delisting a Great Lakes subpopulation of wolves without considering how it would affect other wolves that no longer occupied their historic range and still need protection.
“The Service cannot circumvent the Endangered Species Act’s explicit delisting standards by riving [splitting] an existing listing into a recovered subgroup and a leftover group that becomes an orphan to the law,” Millett ruled.
Conservation groups say that ruling applies to grizzly bears too.
The USFWS published the Yellowstone delisting for public comment on Dec. 6 and will issue its findings on March 31.
But on Wednesday, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee moved forward under the assumption that it would prevail in any lawsuit. Chris Smith of the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute cited part of Millett’s ruling that said distinct subpopulations of a species could be delisted separately.
“There’s still some questions as to what that means for the Service, how they have to consider the implications of that on the broader (population), but at least that assumption appears to hold,” Smith said.
WildEarth Guardians attorney Bethany Cotton disagreed, saying Yellowstone bears should be relisted until the USFWS studies the effects of delisting on the whole population.
“They’re trying to delay litigation. So they’re asking the court to wait until the public comment is done,” Cotton said.
Grizzly Bear Study Team ecologist Frank Van Manen was fairly confident Wednesday that the Yellowstone population was doing fine, estimating that the population has grown to 718 grizzlies bears, including 57 females with cubs.
But this year was a tough one for bears, especially during the fall hunting season, Van Manen said. People caused 39 of the 46 known bear deaths in the monitoring area. Hunters killed 17 bears, mostly in self-defense, up from 11 last year, Van Manen said. Vehicle collisions killed three other bears, compared with 10 last year.
Those mortality numbers have conservationists worried, as Wyoming and Montana could increase mortality through the use of grizzly bear hunts. As part of the lawsuit, Cotton said she would ask the court to consider the mortality numbers.
In spite of the litigation, the committee is poised to delist the bear population in and around Glacier National Park by 2020. The Northern Continental Divide population has an estimated 1,029 bears, well above the set minimum of 800. However, human-caused mortality is a problem there too, said biologist Cecily Costello, with 28 bear deaths this year even though the area is mostly public land.
Eight of those bears had to die because they became a problem for people. As bears multiply and move out of the recovery areas, residents and ranchers on the edges put pressure on wildlife agencies to control or eliminate bears after conflicts arise. So state agencies want Endangered Species Act protections to be lifted so they have more options to respond, former Alaska bear biologist Sterling Miller said during a comment period.
“The Endangered Species Act is set up to stop the decline of a species and to develop a recovery plan. If people continue to insist and move the goal lines for delisting, that really undercuts the efforts of the people around this table to actually accomplish those recovery objectives,” Miller said.
But some wildlife groups argue that population goals are not set-points because another requirement for delisting is that bears move freely between the different regions to prevent inbreeding.
So far, no bear has successfully made the trek over the 70 miles and two interstate highways between the Continental Divide and Yellowstone regions, Costello said.
“Connectivity between these populations depends on public acceptance because the land in between is 50 percent private,” Costello said.
The piecemeal process of delisting would leave two subpopulations still protected under the Endangered Species Act — the Selkirk in Canada and northern Idaho and the Cabinet-Yaak in northwestern Montana — and both are struggling. The goal for the two regions is to have at least 90 to 100 bears each, as long as bears regularly move in from other regions to reproduce.
But biologist Wayne Kasworm said the Cabinet-Yaak population appears to be limping along, with about the same number of bears as it had in 2012: between 45 and 50. Kasworm estimates the Selkirk population has 70 bears, but his data is spotty. Wildfires and funding have limited his recovery efforts.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee agreed that its goals should include increasing political support and funding. They want to increase funding by more than 10 percent over the next two years, but that might be a challenge as Congress continues to make deep budget cuts in an administration generally viewed as hostile to environmentalists.
“It might be important to put emphasis on outside sources, given the current political situation,” Smith said.
In the past, nonprofit conservation organizations, including Defenders of Wildlife, have donated money for research grants. But future grants may be contingent on grizzly bear committee actions, Cotton said.
“You like the conservation community when we’re funding your efforts, but you don’t like it when we hold you accountable to following our environmental laws,” Cotton said. “The Yellowstone delisting was premature. It’s very clear that you need to consider the remnant populations. If you move forward with rushing the NCDE [Northern Continental Divide] delisting, you will fundamentally undermine all the progress you’ve made toward recovering these other populations.”