KALISPELL — The plan for managing a thousand grizzly bears in western Montana wasn’t ready for printing when the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem bear managers met on Wednesday.
It should be finished before it goes to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s (IGBC) summer meeting June 19. The subcommittee of state and federal officials charged with recovering those bears in Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and surrounding landscape have made lots of updates to their 2013 draft strategy.
Although they reviewed the changes on Wednesday, the unfinished status left many plan critics worried there’d be little chance to question its assumptions before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) delists those grizzlies from Endangered Species Act protection. And that could happen this fall.
“This is the only public forum for us to talk about this with you,” WildEarth Guardians staff attorney Bethany Cotton told the subcommittee. “It’s absolutely essential you have a public comment period. That’s how the system works in this country. It’s your job.”
Fewer than 400 grizzly bears remained in the lower 48 states in 1975 when FWS listed them as a threatened species in need of recovery. Since then, the population has recovered to about 1,800 in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. FWS delisted an estimated 750 grizzlies living in and around Yellowstone National Park last July. That decision faces federal court challenges.
Nevertheless, the agency plans to delist the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) bears later this year.
That’s where the conservation strategies come in. They lay out the scientific methods used to count bears and gauge their population trends up or down. They prescribe ways to deal with problem bears and landowners who cause problems for bears. And they commit a herd of state, federal and tribal wildlife managers to keep the grizzly from slipping back into endangered status. That could include policies governing trophy grizzly hunting seasons.
A draft NCDE strategy was published in 2013, but put on hold due to staffing and funding shortages after the Yellowstone delisting effort failed a federal court challenge. With the Yellowstone bears turned over to state management last year, the NCDE members returned to their task in January to update the plan.
“We had to get it to a point where this subcommittee felt comfortable pushing it up to the IGBC,” Montana FWP Region 2 Supervisor Randy Arnold said. “We have nothing to give you today, and there’s no vote to take. We hope to have a product in the next few weeks.”
That revised draft will likely go straight to the full committee, which has responsibility for grizzly recovery throughout the Lower 48. If accepted, it will become part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting rule showing how the states must preserve NCDE bears after the federal government steps away.
Many things have changed since 2013 for both grizzlies and people. The new draft updates how factors like climate change, snowmobiles, genetic analysis and modeling precision affect bear science. New maps show where the bears roam, including an uncertain dashed line east of the Rocky Mountain Front, because grizzlies have pushed their boundary beyond Great Falls as they explore their former prairie homelands.
That means people who’ve never encountered grizzlies might soon be sharing space with 400-pound omnivores that can outrun horses. Glacier National Park wildlife biologist John Waller said the strategy intends to get ahead of those conflicts. For example, he said farmers and ranchers might have to accept losses to bears the way they accept losses to deer and elk. That got a quick reaction from some in the agricultural community.
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“I don’t have to accept anything,” rancher Trina Bradley retorted. “We have never and will never accept those losses. People need to realize our livestock is our livelihood. We don’t do this for fun. These bears on the Front would not have a place to live, eat and survive except for landowners like myself.”
Nina Baucus added that many grain farmers have switched from storing crops in metal silos to using huge fabric bags.
“Those poly bags hold thousands of bushels of grain,” Baucus said. “A grizzly runs a nail alongside of that, and thousands of bushels fall on the ground. You’re going to have a very serious situation then.”
New trends in recreation presented different problems, according to Mike Bader of the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force. The growing popularity of mountain biking in backcountry resulted in the death of a rider who crashed into a grizzly near Coram in 2016.
“People are putting motors on bikes, and shock absorbers and all-weather tires,” Bader said. “We’re way behind the curve on this.
"To say we’re going to wait until more people get killed, I think that’s terrible.”
Swan View Coalition Director Keith Hammer warned the plan watered down or erased hard-won past protections for grizzly country, such as limits on new roads, trails and recreation activity.
“It gets worse for bears and more lenient for managers to do what they want on the landscape,” Hammer said of the new plan. He also criticized its shift from “standards and guidelines“ to “goals and objectives.” The new words had less legal and measurable force to keep agencies from bending their own rules, he said.
NCDE Subcommittee Chairman and Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow said the conservation strategy still had opportunities to evolve after it's published, but Wednesday’s gathering wasn’t the place to do that.
“The idea is to finalize it and recommend it to the IGBC for their June meeting,” Mow said. “That’s what we hope to get to. We have to have the recovery criteria and proposed delisting rule by the end of August. That’s somewhat out of the control of this subcommittee.
"It will be in the IGBC and the Fish and Wildlife Service.”