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Opinion: USFWS must reject Gianforte’s political grizzly bear petition

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Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has submitted a petition to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to remove Endangered Species Act protections from grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), the area within and near Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

This petition should be rejected by USFWS. Here’s why.

The petition is not based upon the best scientific and commercial information available. In fact, its key provision of declaring the NCDE to be a genetically distinct population segment is devoid of any scientific backing or supporting data whatsoever and is not in accord with the Distinct Population Segment Policy. It is built entirely on numbers using questionable methods.

Let’s be clear, the petition is a transparent political power grab and a vehicle to begin hunting of grizzly bears no matter the levels of other mortality sources. If delisted there will be hunting of grizzly bears with mortality exceeding sustainable levels. Forget science-based management. We can see the potential future of state management of grizzly bears by taking a look at the current wolf slaughter, which has wiped out entire packs of Yellowstone wolves. By fencing bears into undersized recovery zones with a wall of mortality, the state is attempting to create distinct population segments through permanent isolation. The state’s plan allows for the NCDE grizzly population to fall more than 27% before remedial actions are even considered. That’s an invitation to the extinction vortex, where rapid population decline cannot be reversed by management.

The state also relies on the outdated idea of the NCDE being solidly connected to larger grizzly bear populations in Canada. In fact, the NCDE is only connected to a few dozen grizzlies in Canada. Grizzly bear populations in the Canadian Rockies are at low density and low numbers and have been fragmented into isolated demographic units, meaning there is no movement of females between the population fragments including between areas north of Highway 3 and the NCDE. Canadian grizzly biologist Dr. Brian Horejsi wrote “… it would be willfully negligent to state that Southwestern Alberta and Southeastern British Columbia contribute positively to the conservation of grizzly bears in the NCDE in Montana.”

Moreover, the petition is silent on a host of impacts. A new threat includes unregulated roadbuilding and logging on National Forests in the guise of fire management, exempt from national environmental laws. If we consider the exploding recreation use and high-conflict activities such as mountain biking in grizzly habitat, rapidly expanding human infrastructure in grizzly habitat with chickens and other attractants, high speed divided highways, rail lines, and the big wild cards of climate change and drought, it's foolish to think that the grizzly could survive state management as anything more than non-viable remnants that eventually wink out.

Keep in mind that 1,000 of any species is a very small number, especially for the grizzly bear, which has about the lowest reproductive rate of any North American mammal. Yes, it’s better than the 400 or so that were left in the NCDE in 1975 but in terms of long-term viability it is not enough. Leading scientists are saying the best hope for the survival of grizzly bears in the wilds of the U.S. Rocky Mountains is to reconnect the isolated populations with protected areas of habitat. In this way, a viable meta-population of several thousand grizzly bears could exist into the foreseeable future.

If accepted, the Gianforte petition would slam the door shut on this possibility and doom the isolated populations to decline until they disappear altogether, forever.

Mike Bader is an independent consultant in Missoula, with nearly 40 years of experience in land management and species protection. He was a seasonal ranger in Yellowstone involved in grizzly bear management and research. 

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