The Best Available Science

By Beacon Staff

Since Diane Smith’s guest column last week stole my Whitefish “doughnut” thunder, I’m free to follow up on another peeve. Thanks, Diane.

I wrote earlier about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s draft grizzly bear delisting plan, suggesting loyal readers take the time to comment.

I’ll confess I didn’t comment – without a PhD, a law degree, and/or a fat job either at a government agency or an environmental group, why bother? But Tristan Scott’s story about Montana bear biologist Rick Mace’s presentation to the North Fork Preservation Association reminded me why the bear draft plan still grinds my gizzard.

Mr. Mace, along with John Waller, Tim Manley, Wayne Kasworm and others, participated in several major grizzly scientific efforts culminating in 1997 with “Grizzly Bear Ecology in the Swan Mountains,” or more informally, “Mace and Waller.”

From 1988 to 1996, 50 bears were radio-collared, and 4,460 radio locations gathered by light-plane and helicopter flights. The locations were blended with satellite-based vegetative/habitat data, road maps, mortality locations and other information into a primitive Geographic Information Systems (GIS) setup, enabling researchers to gather data on “habitat selection” – especially for female grizzlies.

It was pretty cutting edge, or as the Endangered Species Act puts it – the “best available science” – which in turn helped set a policy that roads are bad for bears and should be either closed or ripped out.

Even then I had a hunch the study protocols lacked an important control – that “best” could be much better. The telemetry was gathered by up to three flights a week “as weather permitted.” Now, my Dad is a retired pilot who lived by the maxim that one does not fly around Montana’s mountains in a small plane A): at night; and/or B): in bad weather.

And, when is human recreational and work activity highest in the woods? A: Daytime; and/or B: In nice weather. Take a spin to Spotted Bear on a nice day, then in the rain at Oh-Dark, if you doubt me.

As things went, this “best available science” enabled Greens to sue and win in federal court, forcing the Flathead National Forest to gate off and/or dig up thousands of miles of forest roads, especially my favorites – those less traveled.

However, in about 2008, I and several members of Montanans for Multiple Use attended a rare Kalispell meeting of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC). On the agenda was a report on Global Positioning System tracking collar results on about 20 Swan bears, paid for in part by Plum Creek.

Instead of spot radio checks, these new collars provided researchers a continuous, months-long record of accurate location data, 24 hours a day, in all kinds of weather – a quantum technological leap. One collar alone in four months would give 2,400 locations with a time stamp. Better science! Yay!

Critically, two charts were also part of the presentation. The first showed average travel speeds and time of day. The second correlated distance from roads and time of day. Can you guess where this is going?

Yep – in daytime, especially early afternoon, the subject bears took siestas away from roads. After dark, especially in the wee hours, the bears zoomed hither and thither, often using roads as pathways. Well, duh!

I asked if I could get a copy of the location maps, or if they would be publishing soon. Um, no, they didn’t want these maps publicized because of possible poaching or sightseers.

Furthermore, the sample of 20 bears was “too small” to draw any conclusions. Were there plans to do a bigger collaring effort in order to get better statistical results? Funding, son, funding.

Well, we all know funding Kate Kendall’s DNA study was a struggle – just to find out how many bears we have, a good, basic thing to know.

But it would be much more useful to know where bears go, when, in what weather, and why? I find it amazing there has been so little discussion, much less publication, of any more GPS tracking data – next chance I have, I’m going to ask why the heck not.

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