The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to announce plans this September to delist grizzlies from the federal Endangered Species Act in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, the rugged chunk of Northwest Montana that includes Glacier National Park, parts of five national forests and two reservations.
It’s also believed to be home to the largest population of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states.
The strategy to move grizzlies from federal to state control has long been in the works, and bear managers are now coordinating the scientific and policy research necessary to propose a delisting rule.
“We have believed this population has likely met the demographic recovery goals for many years now,” Hillary Cooley, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) grizzly bear recovery coordinator, said. “We’ve met our recovery goal and we’re probably well above it, so this is a good time to start evaluating it formally.”
The announcement came during a recent meeting of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), a group tasked with managing grizzly bears, and marks the beginning of what promises to be a long and controversial process. The IGBC will vote on a final Conservation Strategy in June, and will include responses to public comments.
The move pits wildlife specialists who have worked for more than 30 years recovering grizzlies to a point where they can survive without federal protection — the ultimate goal of the Endangered Species Act — against conservationists who believe bear populations are still too fragile to be left to local control.
There are six designated areas throughout the Northwest that support grizzly populations: the Cabinet-Yaak area in northwest Montana; the Selkirk area in parts of Idaho, Washington and British Columbia; the Bitterroot in western Montana; the Northern Continental Divide, including Glacier National Park and nearby wilderness areas; and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
In Northwest Montana, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) is estimated to be between 800-1,000 grizzlies, another milestone achievement for a population that struggled decades ago. The area covers about 21,300 square miles between Glacier National Park and Missoula, and is slightly smaller than the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem surrounding Yellowstone National Park.
To date, no grizzlies have successfully intermingled between the two populations, which is cause for concern for some critics of the proposal to delist.
Many conservationists who oppose removing federal protections for Glacier-area grizzlies want the new plan to tightly restrict the number of allowable grizzly deaths each year.
Keith Hammer, chair of the locally based Swan View Coalition, remains firmly opposed to the delisting of grizzlies, particularly due to the inevitable debut of a hunting season. Hammer said persistent population growth and development has placed an “unrelenting pressure” on grizzles and their habitat, which he said deserves more connectivity to promote genetic diversity.
The proposed delisting would remove ESA protections for the population but maintain research and monitoring. It would turn over management of the species to the states and allow for a hunting season, a controversial aspect that tribes, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai, oppose.
Grizzly bears were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1975, but they are believed to be recovering, particularly the populations occupying distinct regions — the robust grizzly populations of the much-larger NCDE and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which are growing at an annual rate of roughly 3 percent.
Last year, federal officials announced the decision to remove grizzly bears from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, ending 42 years of federal management of the iconic mammal under the auspices of the USFWS.
Grizzly bears once numbered about 50,000 and ranged over much of North America. Their population plummeted starting in the 1850s because of widespread hunting and trapping, and the bears now occupy only 2 percent of their original territory.
The Obama administration first proposed removing grizzlies as a threatened species by issuing an initial ruling in March 2016.
Although a lawsuit challenging the decision to delist NCDE grizzlies from Endangered Species Act protections is likely, federal officials said the science behind the decision and the management plan will likely withstand a legal challenge.
Endangered Species Act protections set strict rules meant to protect species from being killed or their habitat being harmed, as opposed to state management practices that can include hunting or trapping as a means to keep an animal’s population in check.
The federal agency’s rule set a minimum population of 500 bears for Yellowstone, and requires states to curb hunting if the population falls below 600.
Scientists also studied the effects of climate change on grizzly bears and their food sources, such as the nuts of whitebark pine trees, which are in decline.