Montana, Wyoming and Idaho are set to assume management responsibilities for Yellowstone area grizzly bears Monday, July 31, 2017.
The announcement comes over a month after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced they were recommending the bears be delisted from the Endangered Species Act.
The move sparked immediate debate over whether the bears had actually “recovered” or whether the move was more driven by politics than sound science. Indeed, while the agencies say the bears are ready for state management, many environmental and conservation groups decried the decision, saying they would challenge it in court. Further, several Native American tribes announced their intent to file suit against the USFWS, arguing the delisting decision conflicts with their religious freedom, as bears are revered as sacred.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, all three agencies argue that their primary concerns are keeping the bear population stable:
The bears will no longer be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and state wildlife agencies in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho will assume more authority over the bears, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking a backseat. Officials from Montana and Wyoming said that while the change will erase a level of bureaucracy in their decision making, their focus will still be on keeping the population in good shape.
“Grizzly bears are recovered and they will stay recovered,” said Andrea Jones, a spokeswoman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the highest authority over animals listed under the act, and it will lose that status over the Yellowstone bears when the delisting takes effect. The agency will still keep a close eye on management of the bears over the next five years, but its authority to vote up or down on day-to-day decisions will disappear.
State wildlife agencies have long been involved in the day-to-day management of the bears, and they say the change will make them more efficient in dealing with whatever arises.
“We are able to have our on-the-ground folks respond more efficiently given one of the layers is removed in our ability to respond,” Jones said.
Brian Nesvik, the chief game warden for Wyoming Game and Fish, said the change will allow them to decide more quickly what they should do with problem bears — those that run into humans or chew up livestock. Options for dealing with those bears typically consist of relocating the bear, killing it or letting it be.
Nesvik said that in the past, states would recommend one of those options to the USFWS, and that agency would decide whether to follow the recommendation or do something else. He said there were times when their opinions differed, but said it didn’t happen often.
“There’s not a lot of times when our recommendation was different from what they approved,” Nesvik said.
He said the state doesn’t plan to make any changes in how it approaches those situations.
One of the major concerns conservation groups and tribes share, regarding state management, is the question of hunting—something that has come up in talks with all three agencies. At this time, however, neither Wyoming nor Montana are planning a hunting season for Yellowstone area grizzlies.
The death of grizzlies at human hands is a big controversy in the west, especially around Yellowstone. The death of Scarface, a grizzly famed among wildlife watchers and photographers, at the hands of a hunter, still stirs people up.
Frank van Manen of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team told the Chronicle grizzly research will continue, adding that the question of funding will become somewhat more nebulous now that grizzly decisions will be outside the general purview of the USFWS. “We don’t anticipate any major changes,” Manen told the Chronicle.
In the meantime, groups like the Center for Biological Diversity are biding their time until they can file suit. Under the ESA, suits against USFWS decisions cannot go forward until 60 days after a rule is published in the federal register.
Yellowstone grizzlies were previously delisted in 2007 but placed back on the list in 2009 when a U.S. District Judge ruled the USFWS had inadequately considered the impact of declining whitebark pine populations across the West would have on grizzlies, who depend on pine seeds as a key food source.
This time, according to USFWS spokeswoman Roya Mogadam, the agency expects the decision will stick. “We’re really confident in the decision we made,” Mogadam told the Chronicle.