Hunting Grizzlies

This April 29 photo provided by the United States Geological Survey shows a grizzly bear and a cub along the Gibbon River in Yellowstone National Park. 

Grizzly bear activity has been swirling in 2019, but little of it will show up on Tuesday’s Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s summer meeting agenda.

With the delisting of about 750 Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies headed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — and delisting of the even larger Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem bear population on hold pending that appeal — the committee opted to take its first closed-door strategy session in seven years. Its public session will only last half a day.

And the agenda does not include several recent news items, chief of which was the report that a radio-collared grizzly bear has been feeding at the bait station of an Idaho black-bear hunter in the otherwise grizzly-vacant Bitterroot Ecosystem. The grizzly was photographed in the Kelly Creek drainage of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest about 20 miles west of Lolo Pass.

The bear’s presence matters for several reasons. First, the 3.6-million-acre Bitterroot Ecosystem lacks a resident population of grizzlies, although it’s been considered a recovery area since grizzly bears were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1975. The last confirmed resident grizzly was killed there in 1932.

That puts extra emphasis on the need for the IGBC’s Bitterroot Subcommittee to work up plans for managing things like raising awareness of bear safety with local communities, or setting up places to relocate or transplant captured bears. The work has languished while the more active recovery areas with growing bear populations have received more attention.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Regional Supervisor Randy Arnold sits on the Bitterroot Subcommittee, which met by conference call last Thursday. On Friday, he said he was pleased by the change in tone he heard from Idaho-based Forest Service officials regarding grizzly activity.

Its 2018 meeting occurred just after a grizzly bear had been captured digging up putting greens on a golf course near Stevensville, ramping up attention to the unprepared state of Bitterroot grizzly management. At the time, leaders of the Nez Perce-Clearwater and St. Joseph national forests said they worried that adding grizzly endangered species policies to their ongoing forest plan revisions could cause public outcry.

“The conversation this time was more about is there a need and a way to bring connectivity and linkage elements into forest planning,” Arnold said. “It’s not ‘let’s not address this at all.’ Now it’s a matter of scale and timing.”

But Arnold noted that Idaho’s state Fish and Game Department did not have a representative on the conference call. That matters because several environmental groups recently sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service for failing to intervene over black-bear-baiting policies in places where grizzly bears are protected. The suit notes that runs counter to long-standing federal efforts to prevent grizzlies from getting attracted to human food sources.

The grizzly in question originally was trapped in the Northern Continental Divide, which has about 1,000 grizzlies. Biologists transplanted the male last July near Spar Lake in the Cabinet Mountains, about 10 miles east of the Idaho border and 20 air-miles south of Troy. However, it traveled south into Idaho and was spotted at black bear-bait stations in September. Idaho Fish and Game officials trapped it and returned it to Montana, but it promptly resumed its tour of Idaho. It did return to the Montana Cabinets to den for the winter, but this spring headed south to the Kellogg, Idaho, vicinity before moving into the Kelly Creek drainage of the Bitterroot Mountains.

The IGBC’s top grizzly management goal is to “maintain or enhance connectivity between ecosystems and with Canadian populations to provide effective two-way genetic exchange. In addition to being a place where grizzly populations might expand as residents, the Bitterroot may also become a linkage route for bears moving between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to the south and the Northern Continental Divide, Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk ecosystems to the north.

However, those goals came under criticism this week when a trio of scientists released statements to the IGBC challenging many of the recovery strategy’s assumptions. Retired University of Montana genetics expert Fred Allendorf and population ecologist Lee Metzgar both wrote that none of the five recovery areas in the Northern Rocky Mountains is geographically large enough to support a genetically viable population by itself, and the bears there haven’t exhibited any successful breeding between areas. And University of Calgary behavioral ecologist Brian Horejsi refuted assumptions that Canada has either grizzly bears to share or laws to protect U.S. bears that might move north.

He cited a British Columbia audit that “exposes the province’s incapacity to rein in or recover from a massive legacy of industrial road access that severely hampers grizzly bear conservation efforts. … It would be willfully negligent to state that southwest Alberta and southeast British Columbia contribute positively to the conservation of grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.”

And while Tuesday’s IGBC agenda does cover plans to reduce the number of grizzlies killed in the recovery areas, it may not touch on the latest controversy regarding recreation in grizzly country: proposals for trail-running and ultra-marathon events in the Whitefish Range. The proposals drew criticism from Chris Servheen, who was the federal Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly recovery coordinator for 35 years on the IGBC.

“I was just surprised they’re permitting that road-racing stuff when we’ve said for years that people shouldn’t run in grizzly habitat to be safe,” Servheen said. “The Forest Service shouldn’t tell people they’re forbidden to run on public lands, but we shouldn’t give them a permit to run races there.”

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