State, federal and tribal agencies are approaching a watershed moment in wildlife conservation now that biologists say Montana’s “icon species” — the grizzly bear — has recovered in two of the state’s ecosystems, including the Northern Continental Divide (NCD).
Thirty-seven years after grizzlies were considered near extinct and listed under the Endangered Species Act, wildlife agencies are collaborating on a “post delisting management plan” that would establish a strategy for handling bear populations and their habitats if grizzlies are removed from the Endangered Species List.
Chris Servheen, the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the proposed management plan could be presented to the public this fall. Delisting in the NCD could occur within two years while delisting in the Yellowstone ecosystem could take longer due to litigation, he said.
“We have to transition from a program of recovery to a program of management,” Servheen said. “We have to do that now because we have lots of bears and we have lots of bear conflicts.”
A proposal to delist grizzlies is almost guaranteed to generate legal opposition. Lawsuits halted the delisting of Yellowstone’s population in 2007 and the U.S. 9th District Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the bears’ protected status. The court cited the increasing loss of a vital food source, white-bark pine, due to climate change as a significant danger to grizzlies.
Servheen said both ecosystems have “robust” and “healthy” populations and state agencies can responsibly maintain those statuses. But proving that in court remains a looming hurdle.
“The biology is strong. The science is excellent. The bears are doing well. The commitment is out there from the agencies,” Servheen said. “Getting all that through the knot hole of the court system will be our biggest challenge.”
Servheen described the latest chapter of what’s being characterized as a conservation success story at a gathering last week organized by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Foundation. Jack Hanna, a famed wildlife expert, hosted the event with his wife, Suzi, at their property on Flathead Lake. The Hannas have owned a home outside Bigfork since 1996 after Jack fell in love with the region’s outdoors.
“We chose to live here because this state represents one of the best ecosystems not only in the United States but probably throughout the world,” Hanna said.
Hanna has traveled the world from one outdoor adventure to another. As someone with over 40 years of zoology experience, he works closely within the wildlife conservation community.
Like the elephant in Africa, or the panda in China, the grizzly bear is Montana’s icon species, he said. Protecting and preserving that icon is paramount, he said.
“If we can’t save the icon species, then we can’t save anything,” he said. As a warning example, Hanna used the mountain gorilla in Rwanda, where he has another home. There are believed to be very few mountain gorillas left because the species wasn’t properly protected.
“You get rid of the mountain gorilla, you’re taking away your culture. You’re taking away what people come here for,” he said. “You have to have management. If you didn’t have management you wouldn’t have half the animals around.”
During the 1920s and ‘30s, the grizzly bear population in the Northern Rockies dipped below 300, and at one time may have been as low as 100, Servheen said. Combined with unregulated killings, the livestock industry had taken off and commodities, like sheep, took precedence over predators. Bears were poisoned and killed across the West, except for two specific locations. Glacier and Yellowstone national parks served as safe havens for grizzlies, and played a significant role in protecting against extinction.
“Having those big refuges was really important to having these big, healthy populations today,” Servheen said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service placed grizzlies under federal protection in 1975, listing the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A recovery program began in 1981 that aimed to reshape public awareness and agency management. Wildlife officials set forth trying to limit conflicts, poaching and other common ways bears were dying. Habitat security became a key initiative. Access to bear habitats became tightened and restructured, particularly for motorized access and project development, like timber sales. Slowly public support for grizzly bears increased, and subsequently so did the populations.
“It took an attitude change with the people who live, work and recreate here,” said Servheen, who has worked with the agency for over 30 years.
An estimated 1,000 grizzlies are currently roaming the NCD, the most in the lower 48 states. In 2008, the U.S. Department of the Interior awarded Servheen its second-highest honor — the Meritorious Service Citation — for coordinating the federal government’s efforts to help the populations rebound.
The NCD population is currently growing roughly 3 percent a year, according to Dr. Rick Mace, a Region 1 wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“The challenge is what do we really want this landscape to look like? Are we happy with 1,000? Do we want 800? There are people who want 1,400,” he said. “We’re trying to strike a balance for what the landscape can contain but what humans will also tolerate.”
Last year FWP conducted a record 47 captures involving 32 grizzly bears between May 16 and Nov. 21 in Region 1. The annual average is 17. Yellowstone had its first mauling inside park boundaries since 1986 last July after a sow attacked a hiker who was near its cubs. In the summer of 2010, grizzlies killed two other people in separate incidents near Yellowstone.
In order to successfully delist grizzlies, agencies will have to show that populations have indeed recovered and that a collective strategy will maintain that standard. A “conservation strategy” would continue to protect grizzlies and their habitats like before, but new ways of managing the species would likely occur, including adding a limited hunting season to counter population growth. Or mortality could occur by changing the way conflict bears are managed. Currently grizzlies are relocated after an incident, like breaking into a chicken coop. Depending on the severity, bears are given a number of chances. Under a new scenario those rules could be tightened and bears could be euthanized after one or two incidents.
“That harvest will be carefully managed by Fish, Wildlife and Parks. It’s not a bad thing but we want to maintain a healthy bear population and it does involve management,” Servheen told a crowd of over 200 people. “As long as that management is done right, we can have healthy populations.”
Unlike the permanent status set forth in the Wilderness Act, delisting a species from the Endangered Species Act is the program’s original intention, he said.
“We’re supposed to fix the problem and make healthy populations and make sure their habitat is in good shape and is properly managed,” he said.
Earlier in the evening, Servheen used his two boys as an example of how future generations will be able to experience an iconic species.
“We have this whole system that’s been put together that is there to make sure the bears will be here,” he said. “I’m not worried. (My boys) will be able to take their kids and see grizzlies. When I was their age, I couldn’t do that.”
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