With heated exchanges and soft warnings, a roomful of deeply invested wildlife advocates forecast stormy passage of a coming effort to end federal protection of grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains.
Last March, the federal government moved to remove roughly 700 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from Endangered Species Act protection and turn management over to state wildlife agencies. That likely will include a hunting season for grizzlies in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
While that rule faces court challenges, federal and state bear managers are now considering the same delisting for about 1,000 grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem between the Canadian border and Missoula.
In a preview of what faces the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s Missoula meetings in November and December, an informal gathering on Tuesday debated what remains to be done before those northern continental divide bears reach recovery.
“Grizzly Bear Recovery: Crossroads or Crosshairs” was put together by a coalition of groups generally opposed to delisting the grizzly. That included the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, Wilderness Watch, the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club and Wild West Institute.
But it gave equal time to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ bear biologists and retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator Chris Servheen, who spent 35 years shepherding the predator through Endangered Species Act oversight.
Servheen argued passionately with Fred Allendorf, a retired University of Montana conservation geneticist with equally renowned career experience in wildlife biology. Allendorf predicted the federal government had no chance of delisting grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, because the area's bears couldn’t meet a standard known as the “distinct population segment.”
To do that, Allendorf said those successful bears in Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex had to acknowledge the far less-successful recovery zones in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk mountains to the west. And the government hadn’t made that determination yet.
“There’s been a (distinct population segment) policy for 20 years,” Allendorf said. “You can’t ignore that. You can’t say the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirks are separate distinct population segments. So you can’t legally delist the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.”
Servheen countered that the distinct population policy wasn’t the deciding factor in the delisting debate.
“You can’t let grizzly bear recovery get wrapped around the axle of a policy that doesn’t apply and will ruin public support,” Servheen responded. “If we keep refusing to delist, the public will eventually say screw you. People are not going to get in line and work on something that’s impossible.”
On a separate track, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Wildlife Program Manager Dale Becker warned that dozens of tribal governments and organizations objected to the sport-hunting provision of state management.
“There’s more than just biology related to species recovery,” Becker said. “Grizzly bears are a cut above pretty much every species on the reservation. Their role with the tribes has tremendous cultural, spiritual and ecological significance.”
And many tribes, including those on the CSKT, Blackfeet and Wind River reservations that have direct management responsibilities for grizzlies on their lands, want to exercise their sovereign governmental rights to consult with the U.S. government on bear management.
“The delisting documentation and biology is good,” Becker said of the justification for taking grizzlies off federal protection. “But the trophy-hunting is a show-stopper. A reservation boundary doesn’t serve as a fence for bears. We need to work closely with other agencies on how to manage them, and it’s frustrating that that government-to-government consultation hasn’t happened.”
Independent bear advocate Mike Bader challenged the delisting process from a more policy-focused perspective.
“The exact number of bears is less important than where and who they are,” Bader said. While they may be thriving in isolated wilderness areas between Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, Bader said their long-term survival depends on the ability to travel between those ecosystems and reproduce. And those linkage corridors remain vulnerable to logging, motorized disturbance, housing development, agricultural activity and a “shoot-shovel-and-shut-up” mentality toward co-existence with predators.
State grizzly management plans also don’t account for climate change that might affect bears’ food sources, political mandates to increase logging and forest management, increased backcountry recreation, and hunting pressure on grizzly populations in British Columbia and Alberta, Bader said.
FWP research wildlife biologist Cecily Costello countered that those concerns are addressed in state grizzly responsibilities.
“I’m a bit taken aback by these claims that there’s a rush to delist,” Costello said. “It’s been 45 years that we’ve worked on this. The population has filled in the areas that we expected it to fill in. We’ve set goals and met goals and asked people to accept life-changing events in their communities all around the ecosystem. We’ve made a social contract. When will it be enough to say we can still conserve bears, but by different means?”
The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem Subcommittee meets November 29 in Missoula. Its decisions get forwarded on to the full Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting on December 12 and 13, also in Missoula. Agendas for both meetings have not yet been posted.