Grizzly bears lack a reputation as a rule-following animal, but they sure inspire a lot of rule-making.
The bears of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem have a draft 158-page rulebook up for public comment this summer as they move toward possible removal from federal Endangered Species Act protection. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan describes how roughly 1,000 grizzlies in that area would be managed, protected and restricted. It’s up for public comment through August.
“The important thing is that recovery doesn’t mean there’s no more management of grizzly bears or habitat,” said Chris Servheen, the federal government’s grizzly recovery coordinator in Missoula. “It doesn’t mean you get to build all the roads you want or that bear mortality is unlimited. We don’t disappear and we don’t stop working. We just transfer to other places.”
The draft plan doesn’t apply to all grizzly bears, either. Western Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington have several legally distinct bear populations, all of which currently enjoy threatened status under the ESA.
The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem bears comprise the largest community. Their core habitat is Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Mission Mountains and parts of the Blackfeet and Flathead Indian reservations.
The draft plan would give bear-related agencies, including Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the U.S. Forest Service, tribal wildlife departments, and the National Park Service, a consistent playbook for grizzly issues.
That population is separate from the roughly 600 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that surrounds Yellowstone National Park. Those bears have their own delisting effort, which is awaiting a federal appeals court resolution.
Nor does it include tiny grizzly populations in the Cabinet-Yaak area of northwest Montana, the Selkirk Mountains of the Idaho Panhandle, or the North Cascades of Washington. Regardless what happens with the northern Continental Divide bears, those smaller communities will remain protected until they reach more sustainable numbers.
While grizzlies and humans rarely meet in the core habitat along the Continental Divide, the draft plan envisions bears moving into more populated regions. It sets up three zones, with different levels of response to bear activity.
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Zone 1 contains the lands on the fringe of the wilderness areas, including Missoula, Kalispell, Browning and Choteau. Zone 2 extends south of Highway 200 down to Bozeman, which is a likely corridor for bears to reach the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Zone 3 covers the plains and small mountain ranges around Great Falls, reaching as far east as Havre, Fort Benton and Big Timber.
“The area is connected to contiguous (grizzly) populations in Canada, and we’re seeing bears that have now gone halfway between the NCDE and Yellowstone,” Servheen said. “We won’t be moving them, but we want to see at least a gene flow, having males move back and forth on their own. We’re already seeing them around Butte and Anaconda.”
The plan explains how bears should be handled if they get in trouble with people or livestock, how they should be tracked and counted, and what kinds of wildland activity may hurt or help them. It doesn’t specifically discuss hunting grizzlies, but Servheen said Montana state officials could add that as a tool for controlling bear numbers.
Erin Edge of the Defenders of Wildlife said the successful recovery of grizzlies in the northern Continental Divide needs careful watching as the bears move toward delisting.
“As grizzly bears continue to expand, they are likely to come in more frequent contact with humans,” Edge said in an email. “It’s up to all of us living in bear country to make sure that grizzlies are not killed unnecessarily as a result of inadequate coexistence strategies. Working together, we should increase the use of non-lethal tools that will allow people and grizzlies to safely coexist on the landscape. An electric fence, for example, goes a long way toward protecting backyard chickens, fruit trees and other attractants that may entice a hungry bear.”
Vital Ground executive director Gary Wolfe said he expects USFWS to be very conservative in its decisions, after going through a bruising legal process over delisting grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. While Vital Ground may not comment on the plan, Wolfe said the organization is watching to see how its efforts at protecting grizzly needs on private land might be affected.
“One thing we’ve learned about the bears is they’re extremely adaptable,” Wolfe said. “They live in a wide range of habitats. “Look at grizzlies in Yellowstone that get protein in their diet by feeding on elk carcasses, while the grizzlies in the Selkirks subsist almost entirely on berries, with very little meat.”
After the public comment period ends in August, Servheen’s staff will sort through the suggestions and modify the plan if necessary. Then USFWS will draft a federal rule to officially delist the grizzly bear and turn management over to the state of Montana, similar to the process used to remove gray wolves from ESA protection. That process could wind up by late 2014 or early 2015.
“The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to develop plans for recovering species so they’re no longer endangered,” Wolfe said. “The bear population is much more viable and healthy than it was 37 years ago when it was first listed. I hope we end up with a very viable and demographically connected population in the Northern Rockies.”