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Should Grizzly Bears be Delisted?

Grizzly Bear at Swan Lake Flats. Photo by NPS Jim Peaco

Grizzly Bear at Swan Lake Flats. Photo by NPS Jim Peaco

There are all kinds of answers to the question of whether the grizzly bear in the lower 48 states is doing well enough to no longer require federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The answers depend on who you ask. Viewpoints range from the statement “Grizzlies are terrorists!” (public comment in response to the Wyoming grizzly bear management plan) to the most ambitious proposal from biologists: the creation of a network of wildlands for wildlife, linking Yellowstone with Canada. Just looking at grizzly bear population numbers alone, it looks like they’re doing well – better than they’ve done in the last century in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Within those 18-million acres, grizzly bear numbers have grown to over 600 today, up from 200 in 1975, when biologists feared the bears were sliding rapidly toward extinction.

Ready to Delist Grizzly Bears

According to Chris Servheen, Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the bears have met every criteria set in a 1993 recovery plan to have them removed from the Endangered Species List, or “delisted.” Delisting means that the bears will no longer be protected by the stricter Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations, which are under the overall management of USFWS. Delisting means that management of the bears (outside of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks) will fall to the six surrounding National Forests and to the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Management of the bears inside the parks would be by the National Park Service.

Servheen and the wildlife management agencies of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho all insist that the grizzly is ready for delisting and the states are ready to assume management responsibilities. Conservation biologists argue against delisting, stating that it isn’t enough to protect grizzly bears if their habitat isn’t protected as well. Servheen counters that the Service looks at more than raw numbers for delisting, including the present or threatened destruction or curtailment of bear habitat or range; overuse of habitat for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purposes; disease or predation; the lack or inadequacy of regulations; and other natural or manmade factors affecting the population’s continued existence.

At a mid-March meeting of the Inter-agency Grizzly Bear Committee, Servheen said the Service is on track to release a draft delisting rule in June or July and could have the final rule done by the end of the year. “The key to success is adaptive management,” said Servheen. As conditions and the needs of the bears change over time, management can change to address those needs, he said. “I’m optimistic that the bears will be around for hundreds of years,” Servheen said. “All three state plans are good,” Servheen said, and don’t have the political problems that have afflicted the ESA delisting plan for wolves.

The USFWS has approved all three state management plans, which put a high premium on public education, avoidance of bear/human conflicts, transplantation of nuisance bears, killing bears that attack humans, and encouragement of private compensation to livestock operators who lose animals to bears. All three states will allow grizzly bears to be managed and hunted as trophy game animals – the annual harvest or “take” could be adjusted up or down by adjusting the number of hunting permits. Hunting would be used to control population numbers and eliminate problem bears or bears that have moved into “socially unacceptable” habitat. Under such a management scenario, the states would have the authority to address bear depredation concerns, as they would any other trophy game species. Statewide trophy game status for bears would sustain bears above recovery goals and still allow the state to have control of bears.

The three states view Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, plus adjoining wilderness areas, as the primary conservation core for grizzly bears. Surrounding the primary core is habitat where bears may expand – but only into habitat that is both biologically suitable for bears and socially acceptable to people. And there’s the rub. What is and is not considered “suitable habitat” or “socially acceptable” is a sensitive issue for the states, federal agencies, conservation groups and indeed everyone who lives, works and plays in and around the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Grizzly Bear Numbers Don’t Tell Story

Higher numbers of bears – as impressive as they may seem — don’t tell the whole story. Some biologists and conservationists believe the numbers hide or mask deeper, long-term problems. “It is good that we have more bears,” said Louisa Willcox, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Wild Bears Project. “But even the federal government’s own computer models aren’t optimistic about the bears’ fate a century from now.” Several disturbing trends are coming together, she said. While housing and energy development in the counties surrounding Yellowstone are accelerating, key food sources (ungulate meat, whitebark pine nuts, cutthroat trout and army cutworm moths) are threatened and/or declining. This one-two punch of less habitat and less food could be devastating to the bears’ long-term survival, said Willcox. “We’re going to have less room for the bears just when they need more room to compensate for less food,” she said.

Indeed, U.S. Census records show that particularly in the West, counties that abut national parks, wilderness areas, or national forests are experiencing growth – sometimes dramatic growth. The 20 counties surrounding the Greater Yellowstone jumped a whopping 14 percent in population in the last decade. And still the bulldozers rumble and the hammers swing, creating more roads, more homes and more businesses for more people – all of which means less space for bears and more opportunities for bear-human conflict.

Meanwhile, basic food staples for the grizzly bear are in trouble. Ungulate meat (bison and elk) could be threatened as the Bush administration develops plans to eliminate the disease of brucellosis from wild bison and elk in Yellowstone as a way to protect cattle interests in surrounding states. Brucellosis causes cattle to abort calves, and Yellowstone bison and elk herds are a reservoir for the disease. Eradication of brucellosis in the wild could mean a massive roundup of bison and elk for a test and slaughter program, and consequently less food for grizzlies.

On other food fronts, whitebark pines and their high-fat nuts are threatened with extinction by blister rust, a fungal infection that is sweeping Western forests (see related article on page YJ-6). Cutthroat trout are threatened by imported lake trout, which eat cutthroat fingerlings. Army cutworm moths are regarded as agricultural pests and are threatened by pesticide spraying campaigns in surrounding states.

Bears are omnivores -– smart and opportunistic. As omnivores, they’ll eat just about anything. Trouble is, bears also eat all kinds of food associated with people: horse feed, bird seed, dog food, vegetable gardens, orchards, garbage and Yogi Bear’s favorite: picnic baskets. Bears remember where they found something to eat, and how easy or difficult it was to obtain that food. That’s fine when they’re in remote backcountry, yet problematic when their wanderings after food bring them into contact with foods connected with people. All the experts, pro- and anti-delisting, agree that “a fed bear is a dead bear.” Studies prove that when a bear begins to associate food with people, that bear is going to get into trouble, which often means being on the wrong end of a high-powered hunting rifle. (It can also mean scared, mauled or killed people.)

Bears Spread Out

Proponents of delisting, like Servheen, like to point out that grizzly bears – about 100 of them – have spread out beyond their core sanctuary of the national parks and wilderness area into habitat they haven’t held for a century, signalling the establishment of a viable population. Critics of delisting, like Willcox, counter that this recolonization may have to do with the decline of food sources inside the parks, which puts the bears into increasing conflict with ranchers, motor vehicles and home owners outside the core recovery zone. In addition, said Willcox, one-third of the bears now live full-time in areas that will not be protected as rigorously under delisting as they are in the core recovery zone of national parks and wilderness areas. Outside of the core sanctuary, she said, there are zero habitat protections for bears in either the federal or state bear plans. And there was a significant number of dead bears in 2004. In 2004, 50 grizzly bears died or were killed in the lower 48 states – 19 were lost in Greater Yellow-stone. That’s more than two-and-a-half times more than the past 15-year average. Sixty percent of the dead bears were female – a red flag for biologists worried about long-range sustainability.

How Many Bears Are Enough?

Bear mortality rates aren’t the only worry for biologists. There’s also the issue of genetic isolation among the bears in the Greater Yellowstone. The Yellowstone population has less genetic variation than is found in any other remnant population in North America. Researcher Lance Craighead and others have found that the Yellowstone grizzlies have lost 15-20 percent of their genetic variability over the past century. This could lead to inbreeding and worsen problems stemming from food loss, habitat loss and conflicts with people. Researchers Lisette Waites and Craig Miller have calculated that the Yellowstone population would need 1,850 grizzlies to maintain long-term genetic viability. Importing all those bears from Canada is not an acceptable option. Dr. Michael Gibeau, the foremost bear expert in Alberta, said the province has only 500 bears. “They’re skinny and stressed,” he said, from rampant energy and economic development and fragmentation of habitat. Gibeau said a female grizzly in Alberta needs 500 square kilometers of habitat, while a male needs 1,500-6,000 square kilometers, due to highly fragmented and lower quality habitats. Tapping Alberta bears to make up for U.S. losses is unrealistic, he said.

“Bears are caught in a giant pinball game, bumping against people and mountain peaks,” Gibeau said. In his research, he’s found a linear relationship between road density and bear mortality: more roads mean more dead bears, because more roads increase opportunities for bears and people to meet. Yet Servheen maintains that bear numbers in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem will be closely monitored. If numbers should fall to 500, he told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, that would trigger a management review, and a review could lead to an emergency relisting of grizzlies under the Endangered Species Act. “That’s very discretionary and very fuzzy,” countered Willcox. “There are no hard triggers anywhere in the state or federal plans,” she said – no single, lower population number for grizzlies that would trigger an automatic relisting under the Endangered Species Act. Willcox’s fear is that without a hard trigger, the states and U.S. Fish & Wildlife will use adaptive management to ineffectively tweak this or that aspect of this or that state plan, while habitat continues to be lost to development, foods continue to decline and bears continue to die. And, Willcox noted, the Bush administration has not voluntarily listed a single species in over four years – despite a backlog of thousands of species in danger of extinction. The political opposition to relisting grizzlies would be tremendous. Relisting might never occur, said Willcox, or come too late to do any good.

Alternatives to Delisting Grizzly Bears

Conservation biologists oppose delisting because they believe habitat protections are inadequate or nonexistent, while development pressures continue to mount. Real recovery, they say, means increasing grizzly numbers, occupation of all suitable habitat and reconnection of Greater Yellowstone populations to the populations in the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem on the Canadian border with Idaho and Montana, and into Canada itself. Habitat in central Idaho’s wilderness areas and the Selway-Bitterroot, could each support 400-600 bears. Together with the 600 bears in the Greater Yellowstone, that puts grizzly bears in the lower 48 states within striking distance of a conservation biology goal of 2,000 bears. Wildlife corridors between these core areas would be needed to ensure the opportunity for the occasional male to travel between core areas and thus help the population as a whole avoid genetic inbreeding. There have been three peer-reviewed core/corridor habitat assessments in the past decade by Paul Paquet, Reed Noss and Carlos Carroll; Lance Craighead; and Dave Mattson and Troy Merrill. Despite different methods, the three studies show similar results in terms of suitable core habitat and links between grizzly ecosystems.

Courtroom Battle

Las Vegas bookies could give you good odds that there will be attempts to stop the delisting of the grizzly bear in court. Doug Honnold, of Earthjustice’s Montana office, said that unless there are dramatic changes in federal and state plans for managing grizzlies after delisting, and a new focus on protecting bear habitat outside the core recovery zone, then a court fight is inevitable. “We’re at a delicate balance right now,” Honnold said. Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear are balancing between the pressures of energy and housing developments, an iffy food supply and genetic isolation. Remove ESA protections and add hunting pressure, and that’s a recipe for disaster for the grizzly bear, he said.

Game Departments Adamant

The Wyoming Department of Game & Fish is firmly committed to a successful delisting of the grizzly bear. John Emmer-ich, assistant Wildlife Division chief, said the department has worked hard to reach the point where grizzly bears can be delisted. “We’re not going to do anything to jeapardize the population,” he said. If the overall food situation for bears deteriorates, state wildlife agencies like Wyoming’s will allow less “take” during future hunting seasons. A big question that needs to be settled, said Emmerich, is the overall number of bears that will be set by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, and how those numbers will be allocated among the states. “We’ve pretty much filled the bowl,” he said, referring to how many bears Wyoming can accommodate. “Montana wants more bears and Idaho less…” Emmerich said that up until now, mortality thresholds have been set low to encourage growth. Once a population objective can be set by federal and state biologists, management will adjust to reach that number and then strive for a stable balance between mortality and population growth.

State Plans for Bears

Montana: The Montana plan states that grizzlies currently – or potentially could in the near future – live in seven Montana counties adjacent to or near Yellowstone National Park. These counties are Carbon, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Park, Gallatin, Madison and Beaverhead. The Montana plan focuses on educating the public about safety, enforcing food storage rules and persuading these counties to mandate bear-proof garbage containers in or near bear country.

Idaho: Marv Hoyt, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s Idaho representative, participated in the initial development of the Idaho grizzly bear plan. He withdrew when the plan took a wrong turn – the state legislature explicitly forbade the expansion of grizzly bears into the Centennials or the Palisade mountains, which provide ideal habitat for bears.

Wyoming: With the majority of bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem, Wyoming has the most crucial plan of the three states. Wyoming initially proposed three recovery zones: a core area where management would favor bear protection; a secondary area in which a balance would be struck between bear and human needs; and a third area where only small populations of bears would be permitted. In the latest version of the Wyoming bear management plan, the second and third zones were merged into one zone, where grizzly bears will be actively discouraged from inhabiting the Wyoming, Salt River and southern Wind River ranges. In this secondary zone, the state would have more latitude in how it manages bear population density and conflicts, including a legal hunting season for bears in areas with the greatest potential for bear/human conflict.

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