In some ways, 2016 will go down as a landmark year for grizzly bear management.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced its proposal to delist grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Area after a federal court rejected a 2007 delisting rule. The grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA) reached its recovery goals prior to 2007 and continues to exceed all recovery benchmarks, as outlined by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the FWS.
Recovery of grizzlies in the GYA is one of the greatest conservation success stories in the nation. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, along with many partners, helped bring an iconic species back from the brink of extinction. Now a healthy population of grizzlies inhabits its native range in southwest Montana and beyond. Similar efforts in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem have also led to that grizzly population exceeding its recovery goals — another success story.
As these two grizzly bear populations recovered, bears expanded into areas they haven’t been for decades. The Rocky Mountain Front is an area where bears continue to move further out into prairie environments. This activity has resulted in conflict between livestock producers, landowners, community members and bears. Increased conflicts cause confusion about grizzly bear management, including who makes management decisions, what level of protection bears have and what flexibility FWP has in dealing with problem bears.
Grizzly bears were listed as threatened in the lower 48 under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. The grizzly bear recovery plan identified six recovery areas, four of which are in Montana: the GYA, the Bitterroot-Selway, the Cabinet-Yaak and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE).
The ESA allows for the bears to be recovered/delisted by distinct population segment, or one area at a time — that’s why the GYA population was proposed for delisting separate from the other recovery areas. If FWS delists bears in the GYA, FWP will take over grizzly management. In the rest of the state, including the NCDE, grizzlies will remain listed as threatened and be managed by the FWS. A delisting proposal for the NCDE is not currently on the table, even though that population exceeds established recovery goals.
Conservative estimates indicate about 750 grizzlies live in the GYA, about 1,000 live in the NCDE and nearly 50 live in the Cabinet-Yaak. We have no official counts of grizzlies in the Bitterroot-Selway, but this summer FWP confirmed sightings of at least one grizzly in the Big Hole Valley, on the southern edge of this recovery area.
While FWP manages day-to-day issues associated with grizzly bears, the FWS has overall management authority. FWP is permitted to handle and “harass” bears according to an annual permit issued by the FWS. That permit contains stipulations about what FWP can and cannot do, and most actions must first be approved by the FWS. Essentially, this means that if FWP wants to remove a problem bear, we must first get authorization from the FWS. This is confusing to many Montanans because while FWP is usually the agency responding to a conflict, the ultimate decision on any action is at the discretion of the FWS.
Other management actions that must get prior approval include trapping and moving problem bears, preemptively moving bears away from areas where they may come into conflict and euthanizing problem bears.
Another player in grizzly management is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. This agency responds to livestock depredations for the agriculture community. They may investigate a depredation event, identify the likely culprit as a grizzly and inform the FWS, who then coordinates with Wildlife Services and FWP on a solution.
FWP is dedicated to effective and sound grizzly bear management. We work with landowners on solutions to keep bears away from livestock or attractants. We closely monitor bear numbers around the state so that we understand the populations of bears in Montana and their distribution. We communicate with the public about bear activity and promote wise and safe behavior for people working and recreating in grizzly bear country.
Given the policies and agencies involved, the process of dealing with grizzly bear conflicts can be cumbersome, but it is the situation we face as long as the bears continue to be listed under the ESA. By the benchmarks established by the ESA, grizzly bear populations are recovered in the NCDE and the GYA. The goal of the ESA is to recover species, and in the case of grizzly bears in these two ecosystems, this effort has been a resounding success.
We continue to advocate for grizzly delisting in these areas. We are committed to management plans that will keep the populations healthy while allowing us much more flexibility in bear management and addressing concerns from communities, livestock and agriculture producers living in bear country.
Jeff Hagener is the outgoing director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.