Wednesday marked the final day of the public-comment period for a USFWS proposal to remove the grizzly bear from the Endangered Species list, and some people tried to rally some eleventh-hour opposition.
Bonnie Rice, Sierra Club Greater Yellowstone Ecoregion senior representative, said a 60-day comment period hadn’t been long enough to review the delisting proposal and comment, considering that some portions of the proposal hadn’t been published yet.
“Some of the parts, like some of the state plans, haven’t released yet. We want to emphasize how rushed, premature and politically driven this process has been,” Rice said. “But already hundreds of thousands are speaking out against the delisting, including esteemed scientists and 40 Native American tribes.”
On March 3, the USFWS said that more than 700 grizzly bears now wander throughout 22,500 square miles of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The agency also concluded that because the grizzly bear population has leveled off for about the past decade, the carrying capacity of the area must have been reached. Therefore, according to the USFWS, the population is as recovered as it will ever be.
However, the USFWS acknowledged that a delisting decision is based on more than just the number of a species in the ecosystem. It should also consider the quantity and quality of habitat, adequate local regulations to maintain a healthy and viable population, and whether an appropriate ratio of males and females are distributed throughout the ecosystem.
That’s where some say the USFWS delisting analysis falls short.
Gallatin Wildlife Association president Glenn Hockett said he doesn’t believe the population is limited by the area’s carrying capacity, but if it is, “excess” bears should be able to move into other areas. However, if the bear is delisted, the GYE will become even more like an island than it already is, because bears have very few safe migration corridors out of the area and any bear that leaves the park would have a higher likelihood of being shot by hunters or ranchers worried about their livestock.
Hockett pointed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Experimental Sheep Station grazing areas in the Centennial Mountains where shepherds have killed at least two grizzly bears. The USDA has attempted to shut down the Idaho-based sheep station since 2014 due to the bear conflict and the fact the station loses money, but members of Congress have blocked those efforts. In the meantime, the station decided against using the grazing allotments for now.
“If you delist, (such) barriers to (grizzly bear) migration that occur on public land would take priority over the bear,” Hockett said. “In our opinion, delisting will shift the paradigm from connecting and protecting the habitat and the population to perpetuating the points of conflict.”
Conflict usually results in dead bears. While some bears deaths are unavoidable, the mortality rate can’t get too high or the species could slide back into endangered status. The USFWS monitors the status of species for five years after delisting, and if the population declines, the agency has said it would relist a species.
But U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist David Mattson said the number of bear deaths would likely be greater than the USFWS predicts because of other human-caused factors such as climate change. Mattson has spent the past two months writing 74 pages of response to the proposed delisting.
Some biologists are concerned that climate change will diminish too many of the bear’s food sources, such as white-bark pine seeds and native trout runs. The USFWS has argued that because bears are omnivores – they eat both meat and plants - they will compensate for such reductions.
Mattson said it creates a one-two punch of increased starvation creating more human-bear conflict.
As bears have lost some vegetative food sources, they’re replacing them with meat. That doesn’t cause many problems inside Yellowstone National Park. But bears that venture outside the park, prodded by hunger and lured by the smell of gut piles discarded by hunters, will probably be shot by more ranchers and hunters, Mattson said.
Human-caused bear mortality is already a threat to the population of slightly more than 700 bears – humans killed more than 330 grizzly bears between 2002 and 2014.
“I don’t think you can disentangle human-caused mortality from diet because the shift in diet exposes bears to people,” Mattson said. “Having lost the white bark pine, the majority of the elk, and virtually all the cutthroat trout, the candidates to replace the food are nowhere near the same in terms of quality or quantity.”
If the USFWS moves forward with the delisting, a number of lawsuits are already being readied. Tribes may sue because the USFWS didn’t consult them as the law requires. Wildlife advocacy groups may sue the USFWS on a number of points, including an inadequate analysis of climate change and an attempt to delist grizzly bears population by population rather than as a species. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee monitors four other population areas, three of which are in Montana, and only one, the Northern Continental Divide, has enough bears to consider delisting.
State wildlife agencies support delisting and are eager to establish trophy-hunting opportunities. But not all have prepared grizzly bear management plans. Wyoming, in particular, struggles to create species management plans that meet USFWS requirements.
As a result, Wyoming’s wolves still have ESA protection because, according to George Washington University environmental law professor Robert Glickman, “the statute precludes delisting absent a demonstration of the state’s commitment to taking the steps needed to prevent species from slipping back into danger.” Many question whether Wyoming could develop an acceptable grizzly bear management plan.
Although local economies are not supposed to override species’ needs during delisting decisions, Jim Laybourn, owner of Wild Beauty Films of Jackson, said it shouldn’t be forgotten that grizzly bears, like wolves, attract a lot of tourists’ business.
“Visitors come here hoping to get a glimpse of bears in the wild, and contributed nearly $1 billion to local economies in 2014,” Laybourn said.
The average tourist doesn’t venture far from roads but can still catch a glimpse of wildlife. That opportunity would disappear if bears, which have grown accustomed to humans, were shot as soon as they left the parks, Laybourn said.
While some prepare to challenge a grizzly bear delisting, others are using the delay to try to justify further efforts to weaken the ESA in Congress. The political pressure may be contributing to the USFWS push to delist.
In mid-April, a House subcommittee on Interior Department Oversight and Government Reform held hearings related to “Barriers on Endangered Species delisting.” Wyoming attorneys claimed the ESA is broken because only 34 species out of more than 2,200 listed under the ESA have recovered. To increase that number, they argued that requirements for taking species off the Endangered Species list should be reduced.
But Glickman said delisting is only a part of the measure of ESA success. Success should also be measured by 260 species that didn’t go extinct, even though they remain listed. Meanwhile, Congress continues to drastically underfund the USFWS, which makes it a lot harder to protect habitat that could encourage additional delisting decisions, Glickman said.
“Weakening protections for listed species and their habitat would be the worst possible way to increase the pace of species recovery, just as kicking a sick person out of the hospital before she’s completely well is the worst way to heal someone,” Glickman said.