Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Concerned about a looming federal decision involving grizzly bears, wildlife advocates are upping their pressure to keep grizzly bears on the Endangered Species list for now.

Three members of a Grizzly Bear Coalition on Wednesday delivered a petition containing more than 100,000 signatures to Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Department of the Interior.

The petition urges Martha Williams, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, to keep grizzly bears listed as threatened because recent events demonstrate that Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are becoming less tolerant of large carnivores. The signatures were gathered using online petition forms.

“The state management plan in Montana, along with recently passed legislation, indicates a much more aggressive use of lethal control in response to livestock conflict, and a reduced state tolerance for grizzly bears in some areas. It also shows a lack of commitment to connecting and recovering isolated populations of grizzly bears, should any other population lose federal protection and oversight,” according to the petition.

On Monday night, prior to delivering the petition, the coalition projected huge images of two grizzly bears on the outside of the Department of the Interior building, along with the words “Keep Protecting Grizzlies.”

The Grizzly Bear Coalition includes WildEarth Guardians, Endangered Species Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, Sierra Club and Animal Legal Defense Fund.

These actions were prompted by the anticipated summer release of a federal species status review of the grizzly bear. The agency said it would take about 12 months to assess the grizzly bear population using the best available science and data. One of the big questions, however, is whether the agency can delist the species population by population.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started the review in February 2023 after Montana, Wyoming and Idaho filed separate petitions to delist certain populations of grizzly bears. Montana petitioned to delist the Northern Continental Divide population and Wyoming petitioned to delist the Greater Yellowstone population. The Fish and Wildlife Service accepted these two petitions but found that Idaho’s petition to delist grizzly bears throughout the lower 48 states lacked credible information.

To delist the grizzly bear, the Fish and Wildlife Service has to demonstrate there are sufficient regulatory mechanisms related to grizzly populations and the habitat to ensure the bear can persist.

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In addition, two populations – the Cabinet-Yaak and the Selkirks – are at dangerously low numbers and depend on bear transplants from the Northern Continental Divide population. One final population, the Bitterroot, is dependent on bears migrating in from the Northern Continental Divide and/or the Greater Yellowstone populations. A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct an environmental study of grizzly bear recovery in the Bitterroot system. That study is due out by October 2026.

“Now is not the time to remove grizzly bear protections,” said Adam Rissien, ReWilding Manager with WildEarth Guardians in a release. “Grizzlies continue to remain isolated from each other, and some recovery areas struggle to support bears or have no populations at all. That is why they need strong safeguards and secure habitat so they
can freely and safely roam in search of new dens, food sources and mates.”

In the meantime, the state of Montana published in late 2022 a draft grizzly bear management plan that addresses bear management within existing recovery areas but does little to protect bears outside those areas. The plan would go into effect once the bear is delisted.

The proposed plan says Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks would not manage for grizzly bears outside of the core areas. Many commenters, including Grizzly Bear Coalition members, jumped on that, pointing to the science that says grizzly bears must be able to move successfully between core areas to keep populations from becoming inbred.

That is also one of the aspects that caused a federal judge to rule against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s effort to delist the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears. Biologists need to prove to the judge that connectivity exists between core areas.

This January, in an effort to overcome that criticism, Montana and Wyoming worked out an agreement to truck grizzly bears from the Northern Continental Divide population to the Greater Yellowstone regions, starting this summer. The management plan indicates FWP would have to move two to four bears every decade.

“We’re trying to demonstrate to everybody, the courts included, that connectivity isn’t an issue that should impede delisting,” said Ken McDonald, FWP wildlife division chief, in January. “Until it’s happening regularly, naturally, we can cover this with human-assisted movements.”

But the question is whether it will ever happen naturally, as more people flood in to domesticate the areas around Yellowstone National Park. So far, there’s never been a documented case of a Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly traveling to the Yellowstone Ecosystem to breed.

“If you have to manually truck grizzly bears around from place to place to prevent genetic decline, then it seems hard to make the case that they recovered and are no longer at risk,” said Derek Goldman, National Field Director for the Endangered Species Coalition.

Other coalition members point to recent regulation changes that have affected wolves in the three states. States have authorized more techniques and types of trapping and hunting in an effort to reduce the wolf populations to the bare minimum to keep the wolf off the Endangered Species list.

So far, wolf populations have managed to withstand such efforts. But grizzly bears reproduce much more slowly and populations are much harder to monitor. So if liberalized hunting and trapping followed delisting, the grizzly bear population is much more likely to decline rapidly to dangerous levels.

“It would be unconscionable to remove protections from grizzly bears that would leave them vulnerable to increasingly hostile management techniques from certain states,” said Animal Legal Defense Fund Campaigns Manager Matt Rossell in a release. “The fact that we have started to see the restoration of these animals in some regions only strengthens the need for continued protections that will help at-risk populations thrive on the lands they call home.”

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