The 25-year-old Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee realized it has long overlooked some important aspects of doing business. Now it’s working on giving its members clearer guidance, which they’ll need if grizzly bears are delisted.
On Tuesday in Missoula, the 23-member Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee wrestled over how to compensate for chaos both within the committee and without after members voiced the need for better definition of the roles of the executive committee and the regional subcommittees that have been attempting to recover the grizzly bear for a quarter century.
What began as a discussion of the committees’ next five-year plan evolved into questions of what should drive the five-year plans and how flexible they should be, especially with some bear populations poised for delisting.
“Trying to keep up with the delisting is precisely why this needs to change on an annual basis,” said Tony Hamilton, British Columbia Ministry of the Environment representative. “I do recall IGBC is supposed to have a role post-delisting. So that lessons learned post-delisting could be passed on to other ecosystems where bears are still protected.”
Some members said they were confused or frustrated by the lack of guidance when they’ve tried to take over leadership of the various subcommittees. Custer Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson took over leadership of the Yellowstone Ecosystem committee two months ago and had to sift through file folders of typed minutes to try to learn what the committee had done.
“The question of IGBC expectations was on my mind, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” Erickson said. “For example, I didn’t know to submit an annual report, because for the past two years, we didn’t.”
One of the problems is that both the executive committee and the subcommittees have experienced fairly rapid turnover. It mirrors that of agencies such as the Forest Service that have had to repeatedly downsize and re-assigned personnel to different jobs because of continuing Congressional budget cuts. So some new chairmen come in not knowing a committee’s goals or background.
The six IGBC subcommittees represent six regions scattered across Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to restore grizzly bears. The problem has been that each subcommittee has - or sometimes hasn’t - developed independent five-year plans with little standardization between them.
Grizzly Bear Recovery Team leader Chris Servheen said better standardization of five-year plans could provide continuity for subcommittees with transient members. So a small group will develop templates for charters and work plans that committees could develop in the future.
In particular, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks administrator Ken McDonald pointed out that the five-year plans never seem to tie into the 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan.
“The No. 1 goal of subcommittees should be to implement the recovery plan. It should inform the work plans, but there’s a real disconnect there,” McDonald said.
Servheen said the fact that two grizzly bear populations are in recovery showed the committees were implementing the recovery plan. Matt Hogan of the USFWS said the agency would propose a delisting rule for the Yellowstone population in the “not-too-distant future,” along with related revisions to the Yellowstone conservation strategy and recovery plan. The Northern Continental Divide population is supposedly poised for delisting too. Meanwhile, the North Cascades subcommittee is working on an environmental impact statement to consider delisting in Washington state, Servheen said.
The Bitterroot is the only proposed recovering region with no bears.
Servheen said no one has considered what subcommittees would do after delisting. It was originally thought that a different group would take over and monitor the populations, Servheen said.
Erickson, USFS National Carnivore Leader Scott Jackson and Cabinet-Yaak subcommittee chair Mary Farnsworth lobbied for keeping the subcommittees in place after each delisting.
“Connectivity is super-critical for the Cabinet-Yaak population. To the extent we can stay connected, we should,” Farnsworth said.
No stranger to litigation, Erickson warned against disbanding the subcommittees too soon.
“Don’t be so quick to sever that relationship for at least a few years. We are going to have other legal challenges afterward,” Erickson said.
One of the issues that might prompt a lawsuit is the fact that the Endangered Species Act requires any delisting to remove protections from the species as a whole. The USFWS can’t delist one population and leave the others listed. This is why the USFWS couldn’t list the sage grouse in some states and not others.
The Yellowstone grizzly bears are an isolated population, so the USFWS has labeled it a distinct population segment. This allows it to be delisted on its own, even though the bears are the same as those in the Cabinet-Yaak or North Cascades. And as Jackson mentioned, it’s hoped that grizzly bears eventually will move between the five regions to prevent inbreeding and other genetic problems.
Environmental groups argue that bear populations shouldn't be delisted one at the time. They worry that if the Yellowstone population is delisted, efforts to recover grizzly bears in the other regions and protect habitat connecting the regions would be dropped. Especially during a time when Congressional members are trying to dismantle the ESA.