Grizzlies are roaming farther and wider. What does that mean for species recovery efforts?

·4 min read

Grizzly bears haven’t yet patronized the fast-food joints of central Idaho.

But they have started wandering so far from the recovery areas set up for them 30 years ago that the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee may need to rethink the way it works.

“The bears of the Selkirks and Cabinet-Yaak (recovery areas) are expanding into the Kootenai Valley and beyond,” Idaho Department of Fish and Game IGBC representative Toby Boudreau said last Thursday.

That grizzly didn’t get into any trouble with people, but its presence in a place where people aren’t used to dealing with big, federally protected predators makes a mark. The IGBC has two missions: to recover the grizzly as a viable part of the Rocky Mountain West and get it legally removed from Endangered Species Act protection.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave the grizzly threatened status under ESA in 1975. Before white settlers started rearranging the landscape about 200 years ago, an estimated 50,000 grizzlies inhabited the western half of the continent between Canada and Mexico. When the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee was established in 1982, the United States south of Canada had fewer than 600 grizzlies.

To recover the bear, the IGBC concentrated its efforts on six ecosystems. The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in Montana encompasses 9,600 square miles and about 1,000 grizzlies today. Some of its bears have started exploring new territory east toward Great Falls, west toward Libby and southwest toward Missoula and Drummond.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has about 750 grizzlies in 9,500 square miles spilling across Montana, Wyoming and Idaho around Yellowstone National Park. Its bears have also roamed far beyond the ecosystem borders, producing a new ring on their bullseye geography.

The remaining four ecosystems have few or no bears, and very different circumstances. The IGBC is organized around subcommittees representing each ecosystem, overseen by an executive committee. This brings together the “interagency” constellation of federal Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management; state wildlife departments, county commissioners, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders.

“That structure no longer represents the broader areas where the bears are, and where the conflicts are,” said IGBC chairwoman Jacqueline Buchanan of the Forest Service Region 2 in Idaho. On Thursday, Buchanan asked the members how the IGBC might rebuild itself to finish its mission of recovering the grizzly bear and delisting it from the Endangered Species Act.

All the ecosystems face similar duties, such as bear-awareness public education and conflict prevention. But they also have significant differences.

For example, the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems use different scientific methods to measure their bear populations — a crucial number in tracking how management activities get measured.

Meanwhile the Bitterroot and North Cascades ecosystems have no resident grizzlies. But the Bitterroot Ecosystem Subcommittee has focused on natural immigration of bears from other areas, while the North Cascades Ecosystem has pursued an artificial transplant program that was stopped, restarted, and stopped again during the Trump administration and now awaits a new decision by the Biden administration.

Boudreau noted that restructuring the organization could better represent both bears and stakeholders. He showed maps of grizzly presence along the Canadian border that appear to link the Northern Continental Divide, Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk ecosystems.

While grizzly recovery can’t legally ignore isolated populations, Boudreau called the divisions “maybe an administrative thing and not a biological thing.”

However, combining or unifying separate recovery areas could have both biological and legal ramifications. A federal government attempt to delist Greater Yellowstone grizzlies in 2017 foundered in part because the court ruled the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to show how taking away protections from one successful population of grizzlies might affect other, less-secure populations.

“Combining them would have the potential of letting someone say, ‘This big population is recovered,’ and that would result in serious problems in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirks,” said Chris Servheen, retired FWS grizzly recovery coordinator who served on the IGBC for 35 years. “The Selkirks face completely different issues then the NCDE, with mortality, reproduction, connectivity with Canada and with each other. To put those with the NCDE doesn’t make sense biologically.”

IGBC members agreed to study reorganization plans and bring their suggestions to the group’s winter meeting in Missoula this December.

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