Despite having virtually no grizzly bears and no time to think about them, Salmon-Challis National Forest Supervisor Chuck Mark faces a lot of criticism for how he handles grizzly recovery in the Bitterroot Mountains.

“I’ve got some people here who think, given my connection to forest plan revision, that my role as chairman of the Bitterroot Ecosystem (grizzly recovery) Subcommittee is a conflict of interest,” Mark said. “And there were other folks that piped in, asking what should we be doing with bears showing up outside recovery areas.”

Mark and eight others serve on the Bitterroot Subcommittee, which includes six national forests, the Nez Perce Tribe, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s part of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), which also includes the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, state wildlife agencies, and other stakeholders in the grizzly recovery effort.

The Bitterroot Ecosystem Recovery Area is one of six places identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as suitable grizzly habitat after the bear was placed under Endangered Species Act protection. The 6 million-acre ecosystem on the Montana-Idaho border is one of the largest contiguous blocks of public land in the continental United States.

It was assumed to have no resident grizzlies since one was killed in 1932 and Forest Service ranger Bud Moore recorded a grizzly paw print there in 1946. FWS completed a plan to reintroduce an experimental population of grizzlies into the Bitterroots in 2000. The project was defunded by the Bush administration but never revoked. Current plans assume grizzlies may eventually move into the area naturally.

In 2007, a hunter killed a grizzly bear in the Kelly Creek area of the northern Bitterroots while hunting for black bears over bait. And last October, a grizzly started digging up earthworms and snapping pin flags at the Whitetail Golf Course outside of Stevensville, a few miles from the ecosystem’s eastern boundary. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear managers trapped it and released it north of Interstate 90, in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem where around a thousand grizzlies roam.

Those and other reported grizzly sightings prompted renewed attention to the IGBC’s Bitterroot Subcommittee last year. The subcommittees oversee bear research and activity, develop conservation strategies and work with local communities on bear recovery efforts. The Bitterroot, due to its lack of grizzlies, had been a backwater compared to the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that were actively moving large populations of bears toward delisting from federal protection.

Some Salmon, Idaho, residents have argued the grizzly recovery activity clashes with the Salmon-Challis Forest Plan revision, currently underway. That plan guides the national forest staff on management of recreation, wilderness, motorized travel and other activity. Forest plans may include grizzly habitat standards developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and IGBC.

“The revised Forest Plan should abolish the SCNF [Salmon-Challis Forest Plan] portion of the Bitterroot grizzly bear recovery area because grizzly bear migration or relocation will have serious cumulative adverse impacts to (1) threatened and endangered fish populations, (2) big game populations that are already decimated by wolf predation and catastrophic fire impacts, and most important, (3) the safety of SCNF users and residents who live within or near the Forest boundary (who have also experienced the impacts of catastrophic wildfires),” Evalyn Bennett wrote in the Salmon Recorder Herald weekly newspaper on Feb. 14. “It is common sense that people, big game and near-extinct fish populations are far more important Forest plan considerations than a new population of grizzly bears. All SCNF and Region 4 personnel who are members of the IGBC should immediately cease their participation in the IGBC for the duration of the plan revision process.”

Conservation groups favoring grizzly protection have also been critical.

“The Forest Service isn’t paying attention to grizzly recovery even through their current forest plan requires them to do so,” said Gary Mcfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater. “They’re abdicating their duty to recover bears. That’s a sad comment on the state of our government today.”

Critics accuse Forest Service of downplaying grizzly recovery

For his part, Mark said grizzly recovery has been a low priority in the face of other problems. The forest plan revision is a multi-year process that got a major setback when President Trump forced a 35-day government shutdown in December and January. And the IGBC’s own workplan for the Bitterroot Subcommittee states “no specific management direction until grizzly bear re-establishes in ecosystem through forest plan amendment.”

“You lose five weeks, that hurts,” Mark said. “We’re still trying to pick up the ball. We’re playing catch-up on seasonal and permanent hiring. And the forest plan has three concurrent processes on wild and scenic rivers, wilderness and species of conservation concern. We’re trying to get our arms around all those again.”

In the grizzly department, Mark said he wanted to increase local participation by county commissioners and Indian tribal governments on the subcommittee. It also needs to draft plans for dealing with future grizzly incidents, like choosing suitable relocation sites for releasing captured bears. But so far, the subcommittee hasn’t set a date for its spring meeting.

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The bearless Bitterroot holds a peculiar place in grizzly recovery at the moment. FWS attempted to delist the approximately 750 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2017. But a federal judge vacated that move last September in part because the service failed to explain how other recovery areas like the Bitterroot would be affected if the source populations were opened to state management and hunting. That court ruling also derailed the effort to delist the NCDE grizzlies, which was expected at the end of 2018.

After court loss, grizzly bear managers face new problems

Another issue in the court decision was an incomplete accounting for linkage areas that grizzlies can use to move between recovery areas and avoid inbreeding. The Bitterroot has strong potential to become a travel corridor between northwest Montana and Idaho bear populations and the Yellowstone region. Developing management standards for those connections is one of the Bitterroot Subcommittee’s 2019 planned actions.

FWS grizzly recovery coordinator Hillary Cooley said bears showing up in places between ecosystems was a growing issue. The recovery areas have thick handbooks explaining what can and can’t happen to grizzlies under federal protection. But the rules aren’t worked out for places where grizzlies only occasionally or recently turn up.

Grizzlies wandering into new parts of Washington, Idaho

“What do we do with these bears?” Cooley asked. “It’s not just the Bitterroot. It’s multiple forests where we need to figure this out.”

FWS has announced its intention to appeal the Greater Yellowstone court decision, but Cooley said she had not received any guidance on preparing a response to the ruling. The service could also develop a new delisting rule for Yellowstone or the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which would probably take just as long as an appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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