POLSON — The strategy guiding recovery of the largest grizzly bear population in the Lower 48 states got its debut on Tuesday, but didn’t get its expected endorsement from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.
IGBC Chairman Matt Hogan of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said early in the group’s summer meeting that the public needed more time to review the 326-page document. Its final version was released online late Friday afternoon.
“We decided to delay that so we can fully consider comments made today,” Hogan said. The conservation strategy has dozens of pages in an appendix responding to public comments made when its previous draft was released in 2013.
That did little to mollify a number of advocates wanting to keep grizzly bears under federal Endangered Species Act protection.
“It’s of no comfort today to hear we’re not going to make that decision today,” Keith Hammer of Swan View Coalition told the committee. “Why should the public believe the promises you’re making to grizzly bears if you won’t keep your promises to the public?”
Grizzly bears got Endangered Species Act designation as a threatened species in 1975. Four decades later, a population of grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park reached at least 700 animals and was officially delisted in 2017. That turned over grizzly management to the state wildlife agencies of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Idaho and Wyoming announced they would allow hunting grizzlies this fall, while Montana officials deferred until they see how federal legal challenges to the Yellowstone delisting rule play out. A decision on that lawsuit could come as soon as this August.
FWS Helena Office Supervisor Jodi Bush disputed Hammer’s contention that there was a promise made to publicly re-review the strategy. She added that because it’s made of multiple agency policies and commitments to grizzly recovery, the public has had many chances to address those plans when the individual agencies drafted them.
“We think the public has had a pretty good opportunity to review the changes made up to this point, except for Chapter 2,” Bush said. “We think it’s not a statutory document, not a regulatory document. We feel comfortable moving forward with it. We think there’s been opportunity for review on what makes up the conservation strategy.”
Chapter 2 of the six-chapter strategy concerns how to count grizzly bears, how to estimate their growth rates and what to do if those rates decline to levels that threaten the bears’ genetic diversity or overall survival. It’s the part that got the most extensive revisions since the 2013 draft, using a lot of new statistical modeling and genetic science to refine its methods.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Cecily Costello led much of the rewrite effort with her research on Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) grizzly population trends and movement patterns. According to her estimates, about 1,050 grizzlies inhabit the mountains from the Canadian border south through Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the surrounding Flathead, Helena-Lewis and Clark and Lolo national forests.
The conservation strategy assumes that if the state, federal and tribal wildlife managers keep doing what they’re doing to protect grizzly habitat in the NCDE, the bears have a 90 percent likelihood of keeping their population above 800 animals (the minimum threshold the agencies want to maintain).
Montana FWP officials announced on Tuesday they plan to hold an administrative rule review of Chapter 2, including an extensive public comment process. FWP already holds most responsibility for physically managing grizzlies, including trapping or killing bears that get in conflict with people, supervising potential hunting seasons and monitoring bear activity.
The other agencies committed to the strategy, including the Forest Service, National Park Service, wildlife managers for the Blackfeet and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, Bureau of Land Management and FWS, would monitor Montana’s administrative rule review. But they would not hold an interagency review for the combined group. Nevertheless, those stakeholder agencies must eventually sign the strategy, committing their allegiance to keeping grizzlies recovered after the Endangered Species Act protection is removed.
FWP Director Martha Williams said the administrative rule process would ensure the state that has the most hands-on responsibility managing NCDE bears was fully informed of the interagency requirements for keeping the bear population viable.
“That way there’s no question whether the state has the adequate regulatory mechanisms in place to maintain a recovered population,” Williams said. “That’s how we demonstrate our commitment to the conservation strategy.”
While the IGBC held off endorsing the conservation strategy on Tuesday, that doesn’t actually affect the delisting process. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service has that job, and expects to publish a final rule delisting Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzlies in late 2018. While the conservation strategy shows how all the stakeholder agencies will cooperate to keep grizzlies recovered, it does not bind FWS in its delisting decision.
“This is approved when the individual agencies sign it,” Hogan said. “There’s still some tweaking going on. It captures a lot of what we have learned. We feel it’s about as good as it can get.”