On Wednesday, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representative updated the legislative Environmental Quality Council on what the future might hold for grizzly bears in southwest Montana as long as endangered-species delisting moves forward.
Matt Hogan, USFWS Mountain Prairie Region Deputy Director, told the committee that a big part of the delisting proposal released last week is the associated Conservation Strategy, which should ensure Yellowstone area grizzly bear population stays viable after delisting. The conservation strategy sets bear mortality limits and regulatory mechanisms that Montana, Wyoming and Idaho must use if they implement hunting seasons.
“We relied heavily on that to get to our finding that we believe the species warrants delisting,” Hogan said.
Another essential part of the delisting is the recovery criteria, which includes a minimum population that could trigger a USFWS review; a required population distribution throughout the GYA, and a goal of keeping the population around its long-term average of about 680 bears.
The USFWS would oversee state efforts for the next five years to ensure the species was being conserved. Montana FIsh, Wildlife & Parks currently spends about $780,000 on grizzly bear management but will lose $80,000 in federal money once the bear is delisted, said FWP Director Jeff Hagener.
The USFWS will allow the bear to be hunted, but vehicle collisions, poaching and livestock conflicts also contribute to human-caused mortality. So the states need to monitor the population closely to keep it off the endangered species list.
To that end, the states are assuming grizzly bear management differently than they did with wolves. Wolves are still listed in Wyoming because Wyoming’s wildlife agency hasn’t developed a wolf management plan that is acceptable to the USFWS.
So, instead of each state designing a different grizzly bear plan, all three states will sign the same Memorandum of Understanding related to the Conservation Strategy, said Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Jeff Hagener.
The Conservation Strategy applies only to the region in and around Yellowstone National Park called the Demographic Monitoring Area. Hogan said that’s the area where the USFWS believes the bear is most likely to survive, based upon habitat and fewer human pressures. Outside the DMA, mortality limits wouldn’t apply, Hogan said.
Hagener said that once Montana establishes a hunting season, the number of bear licenses would be increased if the population rises above 680 and would be curtailed if the population drops below 680. The bottom limit is around 609 bears, so if the population dropped below that, all hunting would be cancelled in the DMA, Hagener said.
FWP would be less concerned about bears killed outside the DMA.
Committee member Bert Lindler questioned Hagener about how such a policy would help maintain wildlife corridors and connectivity between DMA’s.
If Yellowstone grizzly bears are delisted, populations in the Northern Continental Divide and Cabinet-Yaak regions will still be protected. Ideally, grizzly bears would move between the different areas to keep isolated populations from developing inbreeding issues. Bears in the Cabinet-Yaak area in particular need more connectivity with other populations, according to area biologists. But if bears receive less protection outside a DMA, the likelihood of any migration between populations might be severely limited.
Hagener said few bears would inhabit the land between the three bear regions because more people live there. So FWP probably won’t offer hunting opportunity outside the DMA, but it would want to be able to kill bears involved in human-bear conflicts.
Hagener said grizzly bear seasons would have to go through a public process and commission approval and would initially be very conservative until biologists learned how the population would respond.
But the situation of some populations being protected while others aren’t can complicate management efforts. It also might not be legal.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the USFWS can delist a separate population only if it is biologically different from the rest of the species, known as a “distinct population segment.” But grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies are not different from each other. Bears in one area have often been transplanted to another.
So environmental groups claim that the USFWS cannot delist the Yellowstone bears without delisting all grizzly bears. Last year, a judge agreed in a similar wolf case, saying that all gray wolf populations in the U.S. had to be treated the same.
Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, asked Hogan how the USFWS expected a different outcome with grizzly bears.
Hogan said the USFWS doesn’t agree with the judge’s opinion and has appealed the ruling. However, Hogan acknowledged the grizzly bear delisting would probably be more successful had the USFWS first designated the Yellowstone population as distinct and then tried to delist it. But the agency didn’t have the time to do a two-step process because it wants to get the delisting rule finalized by the year’s end, Hogan said.
“We’re in an election cycle, and it sometimes gets harder and harder to get things done at the end of an election cycle. So we felt it was worth taking the risk to get the proposal out and finalize it with the hope and expectation that we will prevail in our appeal of the wolf case,” Hogan said.
The delisting rule will be officially announced on Friday in the Federal Register, Hogan said. The EQC decided to delay any action until it could read the official rule.