It may take months for Yellowstone area grizzly bears to possibly be removed from the Endangered Species List.
Although a majority of members on the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee approved a conservation strategy in mid-November, and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee unanimously passed it at their meeting earlier this week in Missoula, Montana—according to the Missoulian—the strategy itself is separate from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s process.
Indeed, before making any decision, according to USFWS office supervisor Jodi Bush, the agency must review approximately 650,000 public comments on its draft final rule. The agency expects to release the rule within the coming months after a lengthy review, outlining its rationale for delisting Yellowstone area grizzlies.
The Missoulian notes the release of the final rule is the part of the process most vulnerable to legal challenges. Indeed, a challenge is likely. From the Missoulian:
Grizzly bears have been under Endangered Species Act protection in the continental United States since 1975. The conservation strategy explains how future grizzlies would be managed, assuming the delisting takes place.
In the Greater Yellowstone area, it commits 12 land managers to bear protection. That includes the National Park Service, three Forest Service regional foresters, three Bureau of Land Management state directors, two regional FWS directors and three state fish-and-wildlife departments.
It was the National Park Service, through Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk, that cast the lone “No” vote on the subcommittee’s strategy in November. Representatives of the Shoshone-Bannock tribal government abstained from the vote, and a representative from the Northern Arapaho-Eastern Arapaho tribal government were absent. Subcommittee Chairwoman and Custer-Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson said she’d received a letter from that tribal group saying it would have voted no if present.
NPS Associate Regional Director Patrick Walsh said the Park Service wasn’t comfortable with the draft strategy’s proposed method of estimating grizzly populations. The current statistical method, known as Chao 2, tends to underestimate as the population numbers get bigger. The new method, known as “mark-recapture” tends to increase the estimate by as much as 40 percent.
“We’d prefer to use the more conservative Chao 2 for long-term averages,” Walsh said on Wednesday. “We don’t want to create ‘paper bears.’”
Superintendent Wenk has previously criticized the USFWS’ modeling under Chao 2, saying it potentially underestimates the numbers of bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Professor Len Broberg of the University of Montana has likewise criticized Chao 2. Broberg, using RAMAS Software (which is used by government agencies like the USFWS, EPA, and Army Corps, along with private-sector clients such as Dow Cehmical, Pfizer, and New York Power Authority), predicted hunting could lead to sharper declines in the population.
Bonnie Rice, representative for the Sierra Club, expressed severe reservations over the proposal, while Montana FWP Wildlife Manager Ken McDonald pushed for an accelerated delisting process, according to the Missoulian:
“We’re deeply concerned with today’s developments,” Rice said in an email. “This conservation strategy jeopardizes the future for bears in our region. It has no commitments to a long-term management plan, no measures to help Yellowstone’s bears connect to other populations, and mortality limits that will accelerate the population decline we’ve already seen over the past three years. Overall, it will result in fewer grizzly bears limited to an even smaller portion of the Yellowstone region.”
IGBC members also voted unanimously to ask FWS to accelerate work on delisting grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
“Nothing’s happened up here in the last couple years,” Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Manager Ken McDonald said. “We’ve got them recovered. Let’s take the next step and delist.”