Grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone area may soon be treated like any other species if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s second attempt at delisting is approved.
On Thursday, the USFWS announced it would remove the greater Yellowstone area grizzly bears from Endangered Species protection because the population has recovered. The decision was discussed at the most recent Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting in December, although it’s been looming for more than a year.
The Yellowstone grizzly bear population has rebounded from as few as 136 bears in 1975 to an estimated 700 or more today. They have more than doubled their range, now occupying more than 22,500 square miles of the Yellowstone ecosystem.
Some scientists say that the fact that the population hasn’t increased for more than a decade indicates that the Yellowstone ecosystem is at or near its carrying capacity for the bears. However, scientists with groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, have challenged that assertion, saying the lack of growth has more to do with human conflict and other factors stemming from climate change.
For example, the USFWS tried to delist the Yellowstone grizzly in 2007, but scientists and conservation groups challenged the delisting because one of the grizzly bears’ food sources was disappearing. Bears, especially sows, have used whitebark pine nuts in the autumn to give them high-fat reserves to see them through the winter.
But climate change is affecting various aspects of the Yellowstone ecosystem, including high-altitude whitebark pine. Warmer winters allowed pine beetles to swarm across the GYA, killing 80 to 90 percent of whitebark pine stands starting in the early 2000s.
A court ordered the USFWS to delay delisting until it could determine how the loss of whitebark pine would affect grizzly bears. In November 2013, the Yellowstone Ecosystem subcommittee presented research findings that appear to indicate that grizzly bears are using other food sources to replace the whitebark pine nuts. With that knowledge, the IGBC moved toward delisting the Yellowstone population but not without opposition from a few advocay groups.
“Given all of the uncertainty facing the Yellowstone grizzly, we do not think it is time to declare victory for these bears just yet. Yellowstone grizzly bears are an isolated population that is experiencing high levels of conflicts with people and is likely declining in the wake of the loss of whitebark pine, a critically important food source,” said Sylvia Fallon, Senior Scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In November, more than 40 Native American tribes created a coalition to support the bear and argued that delisting would harm grizzlies by opening the way for trophy hunting.
USFWS Director Dan Ashe said the grizzly bear would still be managed for conservation.
“Even with this proposed delisting, the Service remains committed to the conservation of the Yellowstone grizzly bear, and will stay engaged to ensure that this incredible species remains recovered,” Ashe said. “We will continue to be part of a strong monitoring program, implementation of the conservation strategy, and partnership with our state and federal partners. We are look forward to hearing from the public about the proposal and consulting with Native American tribes.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks echoed the USFWS announcement, saying FWP, Idaho and Wyoming are committed to cooperatively managing the recovered population throughout the GYA.
Gov. Steve Bullock said Montana was ready for the challenge.
“Montanans should be in charge of managing our wildlife for the betterment of the state. I am excited that we can again have that opportunity, and we will do so in a responsible way that is reflective of our values, and the value of this iconic species,” Bullock said in a release.
Spokesmen for several conservation groups, including the Greater Yellowstone and Endangered Species coalitions, said they would be making sure of that.
“The delisting rule must adequately protect grizzly habitat, commit to reducing human-caused conflict, and promote connectivity. It must also require coordinated management among Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming that maintains a healthy, stable population. If these critical issues are not addressed, we will use all tools available to ensure that grizzly bears remain protected,” said Caroline Byrd, Executive Director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Public comment will be accepted for the next 60 days. You can submit electronically at http://www.regulations.gov. In the Search box, enter Docket Number FWS–R6–ES–2016–0042, and then click on the “Comment Now!” button.
Then, just as it did with the wolf delisting, the agency will have to evaluate each state’s conservation plan to ensure the bear will be managed properly. If the plans are sufficient, the grizzly bear will be delisted in late 2016 at the earliest.
For each proposed species listing or delisting, USFWS managers expect one or more groups will probably sue to stop the action. That will no doubt happen in this case, because under the Endangered Species Act, species have to be treated as a whole unless it can be proven that one population is substantially different than another. So some groups claim the USFWS can’t delist the greater Yellowstone population without delisting all the grizzly bears in Montana.
This goes back to 2008 when wolves were still listed but their populations were growing in the Intermountain region. Different states wanted to delist wolves. But wolves in Montana aren’t biologically different from wolves in Idaho, Wyoming or Wisconsin so they can’t be separated according to state boundaries or other man-made borders. The only reason wolves aren’t currently delisted in Wyoming is that Wyoming hasn’t come up with a satisfactory wolf management plan yet.
But Wisconsin wanted to delist their wolves while the Rocky Mountain states were held up by a lawsuit. So the USFWS tried to declare Wisconsin’s wolves as a distinct subpopulation so they could be delisted. Wildlife advocates sued and the courts agreed a year ago that the USFWS couldn’t declare populations as distinct unless there was a biological basis.
This was also the reason why the sage grouse had to be listed in all 11 western states where they reside even though some flocks don’t intermix. Montana has a healthy sage grouse population but it couldn’t be considered separate from flocks struggling in Idaho or Nevada.
Groups such as WildEarth Guardians point out that the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears is no different from those in the Northern Continental Divide region or the Cabinet-Yaak region. Therefore, the grizzly bear cannot be delisted in just one area.
Much as with the wolf or sage grouse, delisting won’t end the legal wrangling over grizzly bears.