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Swan Valley grizzly bear and cubs

Swan Valley grizzly bear and cubs

Five prominent scientists on Friday urged state and federal officials to pump the brakes on efforts to remove grizzly bears from protections offered under the Endangered Species Act, and update grizzly recovery plans.

Pointing to the second straight year of record-high grizzly mortalities in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, large wildfires, a changing climate that’s stifling food sources and landscapes crisscrossed with everything from Forest Service roads to highways, the “region’s most iconic species’ long-term survival is tenuous,” longtime grizzly bear advocate Mike Bader told about 50 people gathered at the University Center in Missoula.

“Grizzly bear management in the Rocky Mountains has long been an exercise in political appeasement of economic interest,” he said. “The best available scientific information is ignored or cited out of context to suit management prerogatives. Agency scientists and decision makers are now shackled by an unprecedented exploitative agenda.”

He noted that the five scientists — Frank Craighead, David Mattson, Brian Horejsi, Lee Metzgar and Fred Allendorf — are independent from “the government chain of command,” which might limit others who still work within state and federal agencies from speaking their minds.

All five agreed that for grizzly populations to thrive, the independent populations of five ecosystems need to be connected before they can be considered to be recovered from the threat of extinction. The population includes about 750 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem; about 1,000 in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE); about 50 to 70 in both the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk ecosystems, and none in the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem.

Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put a hold on plans to possibly remove the NCDE population from protection under the Endangered Species Act, based on a federal judge’s opinion involving grizzlies in the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem. Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula wrote that the government can’t delist bears in one ecosystem without exploring how that might affect grizzlies in other ecosystems.

However, in October U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., met with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on the Rocky Mountain Front to push for removal of the NCDE grizzlies from the Endangered Species Act, saying the population has recovered.

“Grizzly bears are not recovered,” said Metzgar, a retired population ecologist who served on the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Population Task Force. “No existing population includes sufficient numbers to be considered recovered, no recovery zone is large enough to accommodate a recovered population and there is no evidence for natural genetic exchange among grizzly bears in all five U.S. subpopulations.”

Mattson, a recently retired wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, noted that in the early 1800s, an estimated 47,000 grizzly bears roamed across North America, but the population dropped by 98% by the time they were listed as a threatened species in 1975. Today’s population, whether it’s 1,700 or 2,000, still represents only 4% of how many once were here.

“Does that constitute recovery in light of the magnitude of the losses?” Mattson asked. “It’s a relatively small isolated population that also faces severe threats.”

He said that some people argue that the bears’ populations are increasing because they’re moving out of the high country into the foothills and plains, but that might not be true. The loss of food sources from wildfires and climate change instead could be pushing them back into their historical ranges, which now are occupied by humans.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Mattson added, but people need to learn how to live with grizzlies. He pointed to the Blackfoot River drainage and the Tom Miner basin as places where landowners are working with agencies to protect both the bears and the people.

“People can learn from each other, and there’s also incentives and disincentives we can provide,” Mattson said. “A lot of people don’t want grizzly bears where they’re living, but will live with them if the incentive is right. But for a lot of people it’s easier to pick up the phone and call Wildlife Serivces to kill the bears.

“I argue that a combination of funding, expertise, good practices on the ground and the right mix of incentives and disincentives will work. That’s why the Endangered Species Act is really importing at giving people the extra nudge toward what needs to be done. If you remove the Endangered Species Act, you won’t have those resources.”

Craighead, author of numerous reports on grizzly bear ecology, said that their old models have been verified by what they’re seeing on the ground today, but new science and research needs to be considered and the grizzly bear recovery plan updated.

“A lot of people will complain, saying, 'You are moving the goal posts; we said get 50 bears in the Cabinet-Yaak and now you’re moving that,'” Craighead said. “But it’s not a football game. It isn’t a game at all, really. It’s real-time science on a changing landscape with changing climate with changing human and wildlife populations, and we need to have flexibility and change the recovery plan as we move forward.”

Allendorf, a former Fulbright scholar and biology professor emeritus at the University of Montana, warned that the isolated populations of about 700 grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem probably means they’re inbreeding, which can lead to an “extinction vortex” of decreased reproduction and survival. He urged that the conservation strategy adopted for the ecosystem in 2016, which called for the maintenance of a minimum of 500 bears, should increase population goals.

“Five hundred bears are not enough to avoid the harmful effects of inbreeding depression,” Allendorf said. “With 500 bears, some may not reproduce, some are really successful at reproducing. That may mean that there’s more population size but fewer genetic diversity.”

Horejsi, who has a doctorate in behavior ecology of large mammals, added that the current U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conservation plan for grizzlies in the NCDE is critically flawed, because it presumes that their population and habitat in British Columbia and Alberta are viable, and that Canadian regulatory standards and practices will buttress demographic and genetic continuity for Montana’s bear populations.

“British Columbia struggles with near-crippling regulatory inadequacy in land and wildlife management affairs,” he wrote in a statement read at Friday’s program.

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