By Beacon Staff

In April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and cooperating government entities released their 148-page “Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem [NCDE] Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy” draft for public comments.

Your comments will be due Aug. 1. Why bother? Two reasons:

Officially, a “strategy” (like that for wolves) needs to be approved prior to “de-listing” grizzly bears in the northern Rockies away from federal Endangered Species Act protection – presumably so grizzlies will never again be in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future.
If approved, this strategy will overlay all federal land management plans, including the in-process new forest plan for the Flathead National Forest, for at least five years but more likely permanently.

Unofficially, the strategy matters because past management actions in the name of the grizzly bear cost thousands of Northwest Montana citizens their jobs, and thousands more their recreation access to their favorite places. Might this strategy aim at lifting any restrictions now that the bears are looking good?

Well, as now written, the draft bear strategy seeks to continue all the death-by-a-thousand-lawsuits restrictions that killed multiple-use management of federal forests in Northwest Montana over the last 20 years.

The area affected lies between the Salish Divide/Thompson River line on the west, clear to Highway 89 on the east, from I-90 in the south to the Canadian border. That’s 27 million acres, over 42,000 square miles, an area bigger than Virginia and 15 other U.S. states – all for “at least 800 grizzly bears” – currently the total population is estimated at 942 bears. On average, that’s over 28,000 acres per bear. Impressed yet?

The strategy breaks the NCDE into a “primary conservation area” (PCA, oh, joy, another acronym) and Zones 1, 2, and 3:

The PCA, 5.7 million acres, includes everything between the Whitefish, Swan and Mission Range crests on the west, and “up to 18 miles east” of federal property on the Front, including Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, plus all the Swan and all three forks of the Flathead River – private, state and federal.

The PCA currently has the highest bear densities and is expected to serve as a “source” of extra bears. Extra bears will either move into the other Zones, or “disperse” to the other “recovery areas,” including the Cabinets, the unoccupied Bitterroot/Selway (where a proposal to artificially re-introduce grizzlies was shot down in the late 1990s), and possibly the Yellowstone National Park region. In the PCA, “the most conservative habitat protections would remain” using a 2011 template of restrictions “compatible with a stable to increasing” number of bears.

Zone 1 is 4.8 million acres, comprising the Tobacco, Stillwater and main Flathead valleys, including Kalispell, and a big buffer around the south and east of the PCA. Extra female bears from the PCA “are expected to occupy habitat” in Zones 1 and 2 with “more protections” in so-called “connectivity areas” of Zone 1 – basically jump-off zones for genetic dispersers (breeders) into either the Cabinets or Bitterroots. There, management “will focus on limiting miles of open road and managing current roadless areas as stepping stones to other ecosystems.”

Zone 2 lands, 4.7 million acres, would be allocated to providing migration “opportunity,” especially to footloose boy bears, “via the multiple large blocks of habitat with motorized use restrictions that already exist as of 2011.”

In Zone 3, 12 million acres will pretty much function as what is called a “population sink.” On mostly private Front plains from 89 east to Interstate 15, bear “occupancy will not be actively discouraged” except in “conflict response.”

Ya know, a long time ago, we were all told the Endangered Species Act was about correcting problems so that wildlife and people could both prosper in the long run. I believed the fairy tales back then, hoping the sacrifices Northwest Montana was being forced to make would be worthwhile. Grin and bear what would otherwise be unbearable, and be rewarded in the end, right? Oh, sure.

If Montanans had known in 1990 what we know now, about fairy tales, Greens, Judge Don Molloy, wolves, shuttered mills, toasted habitat, and the Endangered Species Act, what might be different today?

What might be different tomorrow – is your call.

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