A draft management plan for delisted grizzly bears in western Montana has been released for public comment, signaling the latest step toward a possible milestone in wildlife conservation.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on May 3 published a proposed conservation strategy in the event the grizzly population in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) is removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The 148-page document, which was developed by state, federal and tribal wildlife managers and scientists to handle the region’s growing number of bears, is open to public comment until Aug. 1. The NCDE extends south from the Canadian border through the Flathead and Mission valleys to the Blackfoot River basin near Missoula and includes Glacier National Park.
The new plan does not propose delisting grizzlies, which remain protected as a “threatened” species; rather it sets the stage for interagency management if the population is delisted in the future.
The USFWS is expected to propose the delisting of the NCDE population next year, but before that could happen, a post-decision strategy must be finalized. The plan would not cover grizzly management in the Cabinet-Yaak or Greater Yellowstone ecosystems, where ongoing research is trying to determine those populations’ health and sustainability.
The NCDE draft management plan defines coordinated strategies for maintaining a healthy grizzly population through habitat preservation, conflict prevention, public education and other standards that would be regularly reviewed.
“It’s an important step. It’s taken us more than two years to get to this point,” Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the USFWS, said of the draft plan.
“We’ve come a long way. I’ll be interested in the public comment. We want to include the comments as much as possible to make this into a really good document.”
The draft plan includes the framework of a possible grizzly hunting season, which would allow the species to be managed like other game animals. According to the plan, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission would be given the authority to regulate a hunting season, including setting quotas and the number of available licenses. The season would have to abide by regulated mortality rates defined in the management plan and maintain a minimum population of grizzlies, defined by the USFWS as 800.
Servheen emphasized that the draft plan does not propose a hunting season. It allows hunting to be “one of the management tools” that’s available, he said.
“If hunting did occur it would not threaten the grizzly population,” he said.
Defenders of Wildlife, a nationwide nonprofit organization that advocates wildlife conservation, responded with apprehension to the draft conservation strategy. While hailing the grizzly bear’s comeback in recent years, the group has expressed concerns over management strategies that could undermine the bear’s recovery in the long-term.
“Grizzly bear recovery in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem has been an amazing conservation success story to date,” Erin Edge with Defenders of Wildlife said in a statement.
“However, this population must be given the opportunity to connect with other populations. We must restore connections between the NCDE and smaller sub-populations in the Cabinet-Yaak and the Selkirks, which do not currently contain viable grizzly populations, as well as the unoccupied Bitterroot area. We will be looking closely at the conservation strategy and will work with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the continued success of grizzly bear recovery well into the future.”
Edge used electric fences as an example of a “nonlethal tool” that could help prevent bear conflicts in more urban areas.
“It’s up to all of us living in bear country to make sure that grizzlies are not killed unnecessarily as a result of inadequate coexistence strategies,” Edge said. “Working together, we should increase the use of nonlethal tools that will allow people and grizzlies to safely coexist on the landscape.”
The overall goal of a new conservation strategy is to manage and maintain a healthy population with genetic diversity, according to the draft plan. Wildlife officials envision the NCDE serving as a source population for other grizzly bear ecosystems, like the Yaak and Yellowstone, the document states. The plan intends to maintain quality habitat, which has been identified as a key to the species’ recovery. This would include managing motorized land access and regulated energy development on public land.
“Mineral and energy development have the potential to directly and indirectly affect grizzly bears and/or their habitat,” the plan states, referring specifically to surface and underground hard rock mining, coal production and oil and natural gas extraction.
To prevent habitat loss or the displacement of grizzlies on state or federal land, the plan proposes requiring biological and site evaluations that would ensure any development would not “result in loss of species’ viability or create significant trends toward Federal listing.”
As of 2012, there were almost 400 oil and gas leases within the NCDE management zone, although the majority are currently suspended, according to the USFWS.
Human-caused mortality is the driving force behind grizzly bear survival rates, according to the plan. Of 337 grizzly bear mortalities documented between 1998 and 2011, 86 percent, or 290, were human-caused. Despite these mortalities, the survival rate for adult females, considered the single most important factor affecting population trend, is high, the draft states. In the NCDE, the top three sources of human-caused mortality are management removals (31 percent), illegal kills (21 percent), and defense of life (15 percent).
The new strategy would focus on spreading education and regulations that reduce conflicts between bears and humans. The majority of management removals are currently tied to unsecured attractants, such as garbage and pet and livestock food sources. Of the 89 management removals in the NCDE between 1998 and 2011, at least 57 percent were related to attractants and may have been avoided if preventative measures had been taken, according to the management plan.
“While these mortalities are clearly related to human attractants, they are also related to attitudes and personal levels of knowledge about and tolerance toward grizzly bears,” the document states.
The Fish and Wildlife Service admits a level of uncertainty surrounds all wildlife management and conservation, but the agency expressed confidence in the new practices laid out in the draft plan.
“The grizzly population has recovered to the point where managers can afford to be less conservative than in the past, however, in light of the uncertainty around population performance, standards will continue to be conservative,” the draft states. “Under conservative management regimes, the population may decline over certain intervals of time, but not quickly, and observed declines will be balanced against periods of population increase.”
After becoming nearly extinct 40 years ago, grizzly bears were one of the first and most notable mammals protected under the Endangered Species Act. The NCDE population was listed as threatened in 1975, but today more than 1,000 grizzlies are believed to be roaming throughout the NCDE, which is home to the largest grizzly population of the six recovery zones.
“We developed this strategy because maintenance of a healthy, recovered grizzly population depends on the effective continuation of many partnerships to manage and conserve the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly bear population and its habitat,” Noreen Walsh, the USFWS Mountain-Prairie regional director, said in a statement.
“By involving the public, we aim to arrive at a scientifically-based strategy that not only ensures the persistence of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, but also works for the people living in the places that grizzlies call home.”