In refusing to increase protection and designate critical habitat in the Cabinet-Yaak region, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has probably hampered grizzly-bear recovery, according to a new lawsuit.
On Monday, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the third time in almost two years for not giving more protection to grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak region of northwest Montana.
Grizzly bears in the northwestern U.S. were listed as threatened in 1975 and four populations were identified for recovery, including the greater Yellowstone, the Northern Continental Divide and the Selkirks/Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems.
This most recent lawsuit alleges that the USFWS decided against giving the Cabinet-Yaak population more protection not based upon science but only to nullify the original lawsuit filed in April 2014.
The original lawsuit claimed that in spite 20 years of scientific evidence, the USFWS had refused to upgrade the population’s status from “threatened” to “endangered.” One reason that AWR wants the status upgrade is to force the USFWS to identify areas of habitat in the Cabinet Mountains and Yaak Valley that are critical to the bear’s survival.
The lawsuit cited a journal article that found “species with critical habitat for two or more years were more than twice as likely to have an improving population trend…”
The USFWS argued it doesn’t have to designate critical habitat because the grizzly bear was listed before the habitat requirement was added to the Endangered Species Act. So the bear’s status would have to change before the habitat requirement kicks in.
After citizens petitioned in 1991 for the Cabinet-Yaak population to be upgraded to “endangered” status, the USFWS agreed in 1993 that the listing was warranted. But like many other species, the population was precluded from receiving more protection because the agency had too many species awaiting protection.
From 1993 to November 2013, the USFWS repeatedly stated that an endangered listing is warranted.
But after the AWR filed its lawsuit, the USFWS reversed itself in December 2014, saying an endangered listing wasn’t warranted. As a result, the court ruled the AWR lawsuit as moot.
AWR then filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the records used to justify the USFWS reversal. The records showed that as of April 2014 – two weeks before the original lawsuit was filed - the USFWS still thought the population needed an endangered listing, according to the lawsuit.
So AWR filed Monday’s lawsuit arguing the “not-warranted” decision was a political move to avert the original lawsuit, said AWR executive director Mike Garrity.
“The agency’s cursory one-paragraph decision that the imperiled Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear no longer qualifies as ‘endangered’ fails to cite a single scientific paper or other source of evidence to support its conclusory rationale,” Garrity said.
The Cabinet-Yaak population needs added protection and safe habitat for more than just legal reasons, according to USFWS reports.
Logging and the accompanying roads are a big part of northwestern Montana but such activities can negatively affect grizzly bears. With more human activity in grizzly bear territory, there is a greater likelihood of human-caused bear deaths.
That’s being borne out in the Cabinet-Yaak as known human-caused mortality jumped to an average of 2 dead bears a year after 1999 from 0.7 a year between 1982 and 1998. Between 2009 and 2014, it rose to almost three a year.
Biologists repeatedly state that for every known death, there’s another death that’s not known. So humans may be killing as many as six bears a year in the Cabinet-Yaak area.
Along with other factors, it’s caused the estimated population to drop to 41 bears in 2014 in spite of the fact that the USFWS continues to transplant bears into the Cabinet Mountains. Of the 18 bears transplanted into the area, five have died in less than 2 years of arrival, said biologist Wayne Kasworm during the November 2015 Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting in Missoula.
Most recently, two hunters were cited in December for shooting a grizzly north of Wallace, Idaho. The 2-year-old bear had just been transplanted into the area on Aug. 4.
The Cabinet-Yaak population needs at least 100 bears before it can be minimally viable, according to the USFWS. But Kasworm cautioned that 100 bears weren’t enough unless there was gene flow from other populations. The population is currently isolated so problems could result from inbreeding.