U.S. District Judge Don Molloy's decision returning some grizzly bears to Endangered Species Act protection could make it harder to keep the bears alive, members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee learned Tuesday.
"We could never achieve what he (Molloy) requires we do," federal grizzly recovery program coordinator Chris Servheen said during the committee's winter meeting in Missoula. "He said we must provide guarantees of the bear's survival, and the law doesn't say we can do that."
Molloy's decision was specific to about 600 grizzly bears that live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in and around Yellowstone National Park. But the ruling could affect recovery plans for grizzlies in other mountainous regions of Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming.
The committee is made up of agencies with a stake in grizzly survival, including the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife departments, Canadian land agencies, Indian tribes and the National Park Service.
"The faith in what we devised was not shaken in any way by this judge's decision," Servheen said.
Since the Greater Yellowstone bears were delisted, management budgets for their care grew by an additional $1.1 million a year, for an annual spending of $3.4 million. It's uncertain if that additional funding will still be available with the bear back on threatened status, Servheen said.
For example, the U.S. Forest Service amended its forest plans for about 750,000 acres around Yellowstone Park to help the bears. Those changes prohibited new livestock grazing allotments, reductions in bear security habitat and new campgrounds or other developments in bear country. But they were tied to the bears' delisting. With the reclassification, the plan amendments are nullified.
Grizzlies were removed from federal threatened species protection in 2007 after two decades of recovery efforts. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition sued over the change.
Molloy rejected the government plan last September. He agreed with two government arguments that the bears had reached an acceptably large population and that the Fish and Wildlife Service had properly decided those populations were recovered across a significant portion of their range.
But he concluded the proposed recovery plan was unenforceable and that the government misread its own science regarding grizzly bear dependence on whitebark pine nuts as a food source. He said those failures justified returning threatened species status to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bears and confirmed his opinion in a second ruling on Nov. 17.
Supporters of Molloy's decision countered that the grizzly bear recovery plan was too weak to be successful. Brian Peck, a wildlife consultant representing the Great Bear Foundation and the Northern Rockies Defense Council at Tuesday's meeting passed out a summary of Molloy's 46-page ruling highlighting where the state and federal agencies fell down.
"If you were to design a species likely to go extinct, it would be a pretty good bet if you picked the grizzly bear," Peck said. "They need big recovery areas, they need them to be linked together, and we're scared of bears."
The wildlife agencies failed to address those problems by offering proposals and guidelines for bear management that Molloy found unenforceable, Peck said. In his summary, he asked the officials to drop the "adversarial climate that dominates now" and work with the environmental community to develop a better recovery plan.
The government still hasn't made a decision whether to appeal Molloy's ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Servheen said. Such a challenge could take two to four years.
"All these agencies are committed to doing the right thing for the grizzly bear and we don't want to just walk away from all the things we're doing," Servheen said. "We're not looking at this as the last word."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.