Last week’s gathering of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee vacillated between Robert’s Rules of Order and the Call of the Wild.
One moment, a Missoula hotel conference room full of state and federal agency leaders searched for the proper way of expressing a desire to accelerate delisting the grizzly bear from the Endangered Species Act. The next, a farmer from the Rocky Mountain Front was complaining he couldn’t walk from his house to his shop without confronting a 400-pound nightmare that can outrun a horse.
“There's folks that can't let their kids out, because in the windbreak behind the house there's two or three grizzlies,” said David Waldner of the Pondera Hutterite Colony. “It's totally wrong to become a prisoner on your own property because of a grizzly.”
For the past decade, this combustible mix of biology and bureaucracy has swirled around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. That’s where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tried to craft a rule declaring that the roughly 690 grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park no longer need federal protection and can be managed by the state wildlife agencies of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
The draft rule released last March drew about 650,000 public comments, which FWS analysts must review before producing a final rule.
At this week’s meeting, a dozen government agencies unanimously approved a conservation strategy for those Yellowstone bears – assuming the federal delisting takes place. But while there was some talk in the Holiday Inn Parkside that the final rule could arrive by March 2017, FWS officials said afterward that date was premature.
“Those 650,000 comments represent a considerable workload to be done,” FWS spokeswoman Serena Baker said on Friday. “Once those comments are addressed, then either a final rule is drafted and published in the Federal Register, or the proposed rule published in March 2016 could be withdrawn.”
That rule has evolved over a decade-long federal court battle, where plaintiffs wanting to keep the bears federally protected challenged the science and management plans for Yellowstone grizzlies. The Endangered Species Act oversees grizzlies by distinct population segments – groups of bears inhabiting specific geographic areas. And now that the status of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem nears settlement, members of the IGBC will turn to the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
That landscape stretching between Missoula to Glacier National Park’s border with Canada supports about 1,000 bears. The “about” is important because the biggest conundrum in grizzly bear management is how to accurately count an animal that tries to kill anything that tries to count it.
Both supporters and critics of the IGBC agree the number of Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem bears have increased. That has put those who cherish the presence of grizzlies in the wilderness in conflict with those who see them as North America’s most dangerous garden pests.
“We've now exceeded a social tolerance for grizzly bears in parts of the system,” said Jim Williams of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, shortly after Waldner testified to bears digging up the colony’s winter parsnip gardens. “They’re out in the wheat farms east of Interstate 15 – that’s not wilderness by any means.”
But advocates for continued federal protection fear that less-stringent local control could quickly lead to population crashes, through over-zealous management, hunting seasons and unwillingness to share the Rocky Mountains with its keystone predator. They point to the push to change one conservative population estimation method with a more liberal one as evidence that science isn’t settled on how many bears can thrive in a place.
“I’m concerned we can end up with ‘paper bears,’” said Mike Bader, a Missoula biologist working with a group of environmentalists monitoring U.S. Forest Service forest plans. “The problems I’ve observed is they cherry-picked their data. It’s true that bears are in places they haven’t been in a while, but this rush to delist really gambles 20 years of solid progress.”
Referring back to the 650,000 public comments on the Yellowstone delisting rule, Sierra Club Montana Chapter member Claudia Narcisco said a similar deluge of comments have been sent to Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem land managers about bears, with no response.
“We don't know if anything is being considered,” Narcisco said. “I really feel this suggestion to jump to delisting without consideration of public involvement is grossly premature.”
The science continues to evolve in other directions as well. U.S. Geological Survey researcher Tabitha Graves reported on recent research in Alberta that looked at the family trees of problem bears to see if there was some nurture-over-nature developments to understand.
“They wanted to know if moms are teaching their cubs to behave,” Graves said of the Alberta study of 230 grizzlies. “They found that about 30 percent of the offspring of problem fathers go on to be problem bears. But the offspring of a problem mother becoming a problem was closer to 63 percent. We need to prevent mothers from getting in trouble in the first place so those behaviors aren’t passed down.”