As the Rocky Mountain grizzly bear population grows, its managers have encountered something of a vision problem: They're not sure what success looks like.
"We have a pretty good road map on how to recover grizzly bears - reduce mortality and provide them a place to live, and bears will slowly increase," Idaho Game and Fish Director Jim Unsworth told his colleagues at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Commission last week in Missoula. "I'd like to see us move more into proven areas instead of hanging out in the past."
The federal government has considered the grizzly a threatened species since 1975. For the past 26 years, the IGBC has yoked together virtually every state, federal and local grizzly bear advocate to reduce that threat. Now it faces an intersection of science and politics where the road map doesn't point a clear path.
"I worry we will lose the general public on the side of this animal if we don't get something done," Unsworth said. "They will not tolerate lots of human mortality, and they won't tolerate being afraid of having a bear on your elk when you're hunting."
But they also won't tolerate removing the grizzly from federal Endangered Species Act protection without a lot of court battles. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just drew a split decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on its plan to delist the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's bear population.
Two of the three judges agreed the agency had a good plan for managing the bears as an unthreatened species. But all three ruled there needs to be more science showing how the bears will cope with the loss of whitebark pine seeds - a once-common bear food source that's being wiped out by tree disease and bug infestations.
Bear biologists at the Missoula meeting agreed the whitebark question shouldn't take long to answer. However, another question looms even larger. How do we keep grizzlies out of the legal morass that's ensnared wolves?
When the grizzly got its "threatened species" listing in 1975, the Endangered Species Act was just two years old. While the law provided rules to protect plants and animals on the verge of extinction, it left vague the mechanics of declaring something recovered.
One of the subsequent tools was the idea of "distinct population segments." Animals that live in many places face different threats. In the wolf example, packs in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are a distinct population segment from those packs in the Great Lakes Region of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
But when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting Rocky Mountain wolves in Montana and Idaho - but not Wyoming - U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that was an illegal subdivision of the Rocky Mountain wolves' territory.
That ruling was followed by a congressional rider delisting the wolf without further judicial review in Montana and Idaho.
Grizzlies don't yet have official distinct population segments. But they do have management areas. And those management areas have distinctly different challenges as the bear moves toward delisting.
"We learned from the wolf that a DPS becomes either an asset or a liability in the legal arena," Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife manager Ken McDonald said. "There are both biological and political implications."
The biggest area is the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which has more than 900 bears in the mountains from Glacier National Park to the southern Bob Marshall Wilderness north of Missoula and Helena. That population has been growing at about 3 percent a year.
Three other areas to the west face a much different situation. The Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk ecosystems in northwest Montana and the Idaho Panhandle, respectively, hold barely 100 bears between them. And the North Cascades Ecosystem in Washington still struggles to confirm if it has any grizzlies at all.
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While the big bears have shown a growing interest in exploring Montana's eastern plains to Great Falls and beyond, they've been stubbornly resistant to moving west. A few Northern Continental Divide male bears have explored the Cabinet-Yaak area, but even efforts to transplant females there often resulted in the new bears running back to their home territory. And although just 20 miles apart, the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk grizzly populations remain genetically separate.
Delisting grizzlies would require first putting them in distinct population segments. And the risk there is what to do with the struggling areas. The committee considered several scenarios, none of them comforting.
They could make each ecosystem its own segment. That would be great for the Northern Continental Divide, which has a healthy, growing population. But with the linkages to the western three ecosystems still little understood, several committee members predicted court challenges.
Combining all the northern ecosystems into a single distinct population segment carried a different risk. It could be easy to let the little territories wither away in the public mind, overshadowed by the success of the Northern Continental Divide. Or a court might decide the poor performance of the western territories outweighed the vitality of the big zone, and order all the bears to remain in threatened status.
Brian Peck of the Natural Resources Defense Council raised even more concerns.
"Real recovery requires a population of several thousand bears," Peck said. His organization and several other conservation groups sent the IGBC a 10-point plan for recovery that included relocating campsites in Glacier National Park, toughening fines for people who left food where grizzlies could get it, and establishment of linkage zones that allow bears to move safely between Yellowstone, the Continental Divide and other habitat areas.
"We can't do these things in isolation," Peck said. "There should be something in the recovery plan where the bears in the Lower 48 (states) can be considered one large megapopulation."
On a different tack, the IGBC took a look at something called a Landscape Conservation Cooperative. Just as the IGBC combines grizzly-related agencies, the new cooperatives would cast an even larger net to work on land management issues across states or even the U.S.-Canada border.
That international aspect could be great for grizzly recovery, according to USFWS Regional Director Steve Guertin.
"The bears are a big priority for Alberta and British Columbia," Guertin said. "But they've only had varying degrees of success up there."
Forging landscape-scale policy links would help bear work the same way it's helped fisheries biologists understand the cross-boundary Flathead River drainage, Guertin said. That could be especially helpful in the smaller Selkirk and North Cascades recovery areas, where the U.S. bears comprise a finger on the hand of a larger Canadian population, he said.
The Kootenai, Idaho Panhandle and Lolo national forests last week released a new grizzly access plan for the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk grizzly areas in response to another long-simmering court case. The plan may close more than 100 miles of backcountry roads over the next eight years, and could face new legal challenges from off-highway vehicle users who want to maintain their own access.
"I really worry if we can keep the IGBC together in the face of this endless morass of roadblocks," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly recovery coordinator Chris Servheen said. "Instead, we get stopped and all wonder what we're doing. We've been telling the public for a long time these populations need to be recovered. How do we change that message?"
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.