Contention continues over whether Yellowstone grizzlies should be delisted from the Endangered Species Act.
As previously reported, in a letter sent to Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming state wildlife agencies in September, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe outlined a tentative plan for grizzly management should the Yellowstone population be delisted. Among the proposals: keeping the population at least above 600, with an ideal goal of 674, with bears managed with “discretionary mortality” measures (presumably hunting and removal by wildlife officials). The current Yellowstone grizzly count is 714.
Should the population dip below 600, Ashe notes, all discretionary mortality measures would be barred, except where human safety is concerned. Ashe adds a delisting proposal would likely be published before the end of 2015.
His appraisal isn’t that surprising: Earlier this year, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team started their annual capture operations, stating the population was ready to be delisted. Talk to delist Yellowstone grizzlies circulated around Park County, WY this past fall, but it didn’t seem to reflect any policy move. Early in November, a study published in Molecular Ecology found Yellowstone grizzlies to be a “stable” population, although reportedly grizzly mortalities have been high this year.
It’s important to note: Ashe is talking about potential management protocol, not expected protocol. Delisting Yellowstone grizzlies from the ESA would hinge on three things: a conservation strategy, a rule set for grizzly management across the board, and a document outlining how the population will be monitored.
The letter was published shortly before the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (which convenes to discuss the status of grizzly populations across the West) was scheduled to meet (December 8-9, 2015) in Missoula, MT. Indeed, delisting Yellowstone grizzlies was at the heart of the discussion, although there’s disagreement regarding what course of action to take, with a distinction made between delisting grizzlies and seeing grizzlies recover. From Montana Public Radio:
“We’ve got a huge effort underway. It’s very complicated and we want to make sure everybody’s on the same page and being successful in moving forward.”
That’s Chris Servheen. He’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator. He says there are at least 1,000 bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes Glacier National Park and portions of northwest Montana.
“Delisting on the other hand is a legal process,” Servheen says. “We have to go through with a threats analysis and public involvement in the process. Then we have to go through a legal structure to determine whether the bear is threatened or not listed anymore. There’s a difference between recovery and delisting. Both of those populations are recovered. Neither one is delisted yet.”
When and if Yellowstone grizzlies are delisted, Servheen says officials would work to stabilize them at the average population recorded from 2002 to 2014.
“That number is about 674. What we’re going to do is set up a system that we’ll enhance to make sure that we maintain that population from now on into the future.”
Servheen says state-regulated grizzly hunting seasons might be considered if federal protections are eventually lifted.
“As long as it’s within the mortality limits, and structures that have been established under the delisting system,” Servheen says. “Those haven’t been fully agreed to yet and of course we haven’t proposed delisting yet, but if sport hunting did take place it would be carefully regulated, it would be fairly small and all mortalities from whatever cause hunting or bears hit by cars, whatever, would be counted under mortality limits and carefully regulated.”
The publication of Ashe’s letter prompted a backlash from environmental and conservation groups, saying the agency was ignoring the needs of Yellowstone grizzlies by considering delisting. Indeed, even before the letter was published, a coalition of American Indian tribes went on record protesting a possible delisting. And criticism of the process has not stopped, especially after the IGBC meeting. From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:
Josh Osher with Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group, said the government proposal threatens to halt or even reverse the grizzly’s hard-fought recovery. It does nothing to address livestock grazing in areas inhabited by bears, Osher said, and would allow unlimited hunting in areas where bears might migrate in search of new habitat.
“They’re itching to (lift protections) for the bears because of political expediency,” Osher said. “We really wanted to see some safe zones for bears outside of national parks, and we’re not getting that from the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Further, the IGBC and involved agencies have weathered criticism regarding how they count Yellowstone grizzlies and what significance they read into those counts. Included in Ashe’s proposal is the establishment of a “Demographic Monitoring Area” measuring approximately 19,000 square miles, where all grizzly mortalities would be counted. For comparison, the GYE measures approximately 22,500 square miles. Further, the mortality count would not include grizzly deaths outside the proposed DMA.
It’s a stark divide: agencies contend the current level of Yellowstone grizzlies designates a recovered population; others, such as Louisa Willcox of “Grizzly Times,” contend the GYE can and should support around 2,000 grizzly bears.
Frustration is clear on both sides, especially on the part of state and federal wildlife officials and biologists. From the Missoulian:
Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team ecologist Frank Van Manan said the more important point was that the rate of growth was slowing down. That’s because the ecosystem appears to be filling up, and young grizzlies are having a harder time competing for space with older, more established bears.
“Some have referred to this as voodoo science,” Van Manan said Tuesday. “Let’s not confuse policy with science. We’re not just making this stuff up. As a population reaches carrying capacity, you see a drop in the survival of young and suppression of reproduction.”
Yellowstone grizzlies were previously delisted in 2007, only to be relisted in 2009 by a federal judge, citing a decline in whitebark pine, which is a favorite food of foraging grizzlies, especially close to winter. It’s possible the current delisting initiative could play out the same way. It’s also possible grizzly bear populations would persist in the USFWS’ current window of 600-674. Or that federal protections will remain in effect.