Montana’s grizzly bears better hope they packed their reading glasses as they settle into their winter naptime: There’s a lot of homework to finish over the Christmas holidays.
The Flathead National Forest Plan final draft, released Thursday, includes the proposed rules for managing grizzlies in four national forests that share management responsibility for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Public comments are due in mid-February.
On Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put out a request for reviews of its draft criteria for habitat-based recovery of the NCDE grizzlies. That same day, it published four peer-review responses to the plan. It also announced a Jan. 3 workshop in Missoula to collect “the input of scientists, the public and interested organizations.” Written responses to the regulations are due Jan. 26.
FWS also on Dec. 7 asked for public feedback on a federal appeals court decision on Western Great Lakes gray wolves that might affect the Endangered Species Act status of grizzly bears. It wants comments by Jan. 8.
“Here it comes — the usual holiday chickens — government tactic of docu-dumping and running the comment period during the holiday season,” Mike Bader, a proponent of continued federal protection for grizzly bears, wrote in an email. “Only this time it’s more like carpet-bombing with a habitat assessment comment period and hearing, Four-Forests amendments, the FNF plan, the conservation strategy, other delisting docs, etc.
"Obviously, they're trying to unroll delisting under a full simultaneous cannonade, meant to overwhelm, obfuscate and confuse. They wonder why they get litigated so often (and lose so often),'' he said.
The Flathead Forest draft record of decision was originally expected in June, but had its deadline pushed back several times. It performs the unusual role of making grizzly bear rules for the Lolo, Helena-Lewis and Clark and Kootenai national forests. The Kootenai has already completed its forest plan, while the Helena-Lewis and Clark is midway through its drafting and the Lolo hasn’t started to write its new plan yet.
Forest plans serve sort of like owner’s manuals for Forest Service staff, detailing how various parts of a national forest are managed.
In the case of the grizzly bear amendments, the Flathead Forest planning staff researched how all four forests should deal with issues such as motorized access, developed recreation sites, vegetation management, livestock grazing and energy and mineral development to protect grizzly bear recovery efforts in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. About 1,000 grizzlies live in that region, which includes Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Mission Mountains Wilderness, Rocky Mountain Front, Flathead and Blackfeet Indian reservations, and the Salish Mountains running west of Flathead Lake.
Grizzly bears have been protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1975. FWS delisted grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem around Yellowstone National Park in July, declaring the roughly 700 bears there recovered enough to survive without ESA oversight.
At least six lawsuits have challenged that decision. Some of them refer to the Western Great Lakes wolf decision, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia released in August. The appeals court judges vacated a FWS plan to delist gray wolves in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota in part because the agency declared that a distinct population segment in those three states had recovered without showing how that decision affected other threatened wolf populations in the Lower 48 states.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem are two of six distinct population segments of grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states. If removed from Endangered Species List protection, those bears would become the responsibility of state wildlife agencies in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams said the appeals court view of how distinct population segments work needed careful study.
“Because of the timing, it seemed advisable to seek input on how the ruling might impact delisting of the grizzly bear,” Williams said during a meeting of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee in Missoula on Wednesday. The IGBC brings representatives from state, National Park Service, tribal government and other federal agencies to advise the Fish and Wildlife Service on grizzly bear recovery.
The Forest Service also serves on the IGBC, and its national forests include the bulk of grizzly bear habitat outside Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. Because the Flathead National Forest holds the largest share of that landscape, its staff got the task of drafting rules for the other three.
Flathead Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said the strategy keeps in place the conditions that allowed the grizzly bear population to recover. Those include the number of bears, road miles, campground sizes and other factors recorded in 2011 — one of the best years for grizzly population growth.
“You will hear a lot of debate and dispute about that,” Weber said. “It is clearly something that people have strongly held values around. We really listened hard to all of that and continue to listen. We really looked to science and the experience of grizzly bear managers to set the stage to continue what has been a remarkable population growth and territory they occupy.”
The Flathead Forest Plan and the NCDE habitat standards were written simultaneously, although the forest plan essentially depends on the Fish and Wildlife Service document for its criteria. The plan also attempts to give direction to forest managers without knowing if grizzly bears remain a federal threatened species or a state-managed, big game animal available for hunting. That status depends on whether FWS completes its delisting of Northern Continental Divide bears next summer as planned, whether that delisting can survive legal challenges, and whether the lawsuits confronting the Yellowstone grizzly delisting reshuffle the whole deck.
The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem habitat standards are available online at regulations.gov Docket number FWS-R6-ES-2017-0057. Comments will be accepted until Jan. 26, 2018 and may be submitted electronically on regulations.gov, or by mail to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–RX–ES–2017–0057; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Headquarters, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803. More information about these species is available on the Service’s websites at: www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/es/grizzlyBear.php.
Gray wolf comments can be made online through the FWS website.