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Stevensville grizzly bear

A single grizzly bear captured near a Stevensville golf course in October comprised the whole population report for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee's Bitterroot Ecosystem subcommittee. But its removal from a recovery area that has no resident grizzlies signifies the challenges IGBC members face as the bears remain on the Endangered Species List.

A group of environmental organizations has criticized Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest officials for neglecting grizzly bear protection, which they claim breaks the law.

“(Y)our statements reflect hostility towards protecting grizzly habitat and recovering the species in the best grizzly habitat in the Rockies from Yellowstone National Park to Jasper National Park,” the Dec. 21 letter from 22 organizations and individuals stated.

“While natural recovery was thought unlikely in the final Environmental Impact Statement of Grizzly Recovery in the Bitterroot Ecosystem, it now appears that natural recovery could very well occur if allowed to happen. The [Endangered Species Act] requires that recovery occur in the Bitterroot Ecosystem, and the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests are the best habitat within that ecosystem.”

The letter referred to comments by Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Cheryl Probert in the Missoulian after a grizzly bear was captured near Stevensville in October. Despite being a few miles from the boundary of the Bitterroot Ecosystem, the bear was released more than 50 air miles away in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. After the incident, Forest Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials said they had not completed relocation protocols for the Bitterroot and the bear would have better survival chances where it was turned loose near Ovando.

Grizzlies were made a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. As part of the recovery strategy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) designated about 6 million acres of wilderness and national forest land along the Montana-Idaho border as habitat where grizzlies could thrive. However, the last native grizzlies in that region were killed in the 1940s.

In 2000, FWS authorized a plan to reintroduce grizzlies to the Bitterroot Ecosystem. That would have created an experimental/nonessential population with much less protection than grizzlies would have if they naturally recolonized the area. The plan was defunded in the change of administration between Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But it was never revoked.

At a Nov. 6 meeting of land managers overseeing the Bitterroot grizzly recovery, Probert said she was “trying not to add additional controversy where it’s not warranted at this time,” to the challenges of completing a new forest plan involving contentious travel management, wild and scenic river, and wilderness decisions.

The critics countered that the Nez-Clear’s draft alternatives propose allowing increased motorized and mechanized use in recommended wilderness areas, and quadrupling logging levels compared to what occurred in the previous two decades.

“Your statements and actions to date suggest that you do not prioritize grizzly recovery and habitat protection in spite of legal mandates to do so,” the letter writers stated. They quoted the Nez-Clear’s own forest plan environmental impact statement that “because of their currently unroaded condition and proximity to existing wilderness, approximately 334,730 acres of roadless lands offer the greatest potential … for contributing to the recovery and conservation of both the grizzly bear and the wolf. … To the extent these lands are roaded, it will become increasingly more difficult to manage for the recovery of these species.”

Due to the federal government shutdown, all U.S. Forest Service offices were closed at the end of December and officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Groups signing the letter included Friends of the Clearwater, Idaho Sporting Congress, Shoot 'Em With a Camera, WildEarth Guardians, Friends of the Wild Swan, Save the Yellowstone Grizzly, Grizzly Times, Western Watersheds Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Yaak Valley Forest Council, Friends of the Bitterroot, Swanview Coalition, Wilderness Watch, Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, Mountain Bikers for Wilderness, Conservation Congress, Sierra ForestKeeper, WildWest Institute, Save Our Sky Blue Waters, Heartwood and Kootenai Environmental Alliance.

Both Probert and adjacent Salmon-Challis National Forest Supervisor Chuck Mark said their forest plan revisions faced strong local criticism from Idaho communities over potential activity limitations.

“For many members of the public, they hear ‘grizzly bear’ and it means ‘restriction,’” Mark told the Missoulian after the November meeting. “You’re going to reduce access to it or restrict us from it. That’s the social/political environment we’re involved with.”

But with both the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems nearing carrying capacity with about 1,700 grizzlies combined, federal grizzly recovery efforts have shifted to the less successful areas. Those include the Bitterroot and Northern Cascades ecosystems that have no or nearly no resident bears, along with the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem in northwest Montana and the Selkirk Ecosystem in northern Idaho that have around 50 bears each.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to delist Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies in 2017, but that rule was overturned in October. In his decision, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen faulted the service for failing to show how taking protections away from the big grizzly populations might affect the struggling areas, and for failing to show regulations in place that would help bears travel between recovery zones.

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