MISSOULA — A group of wildlife advocates are asking the Biden administration and Congress to do more to protect the grizzly bear until the populations are recovered across its range.
On Thursday, nine wildlife organizations and one individual sent letters to Congress and the U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture, Transportation and the Interior asking for a variety of policy changes that would give grizzly bear populations a better chance of recovering to the point that they can survive long term.
“In those letters, we are calling for a holistic approach to ensure grizzly bear protection and recovery. We want to see grizzly bears not just reach some artificial population level but we want to see grizzly bears thrive and be able to occupy much of their historic range. And in order to do that, we need to recognize that grizzly bears, first and foremost, must stay protected under the Endangered Species Act, and calls for delisting right now are very much premature,” said Adam Rissien of Wild Earth Guardians.
The letter to Congress asks that the bear not be delisted. Since 2015, when former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tried to delist the Yellowstone subpopulation of grizzly bears, some Congressmen, including Sen. Steve Daines, have tried to push bills that would delist the Yellowstone subpopulation.
Groups sued to stop the delisting, and Missoula federal court judge Dana Christensen ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t followed the law, which doesn’t allow the delisting of one population without considering the effect on the remaining populations. The agency also didn’t do anything to ensure bears have the ability to migrate between populations, which is essential to their long-term survival.
Science has demonstrated that the subpopulations will not endure if they are isolated because of genetic inbreeding and events that might wipe out part of the population. The Yellowstone population has an estimated 800 bears, and the Northern Continental Divide population has an estimated 1,000 bears. But so far, bears have not moved between the two to breed.
The other recovery areas have fewer than 100 bears. The Bitterroot area, in particular, has no resident bears that biologists have documented, although a few bears have traveled south from the Cabinet-Yaak and NCDE during the summer.
All told, only about 2,000 grizzly bears reside in the continental U.S. That’s not enough for the species to survive over time-based upon genetics, said bear biologist David Mattson.
“Ideally, we need between 8,000 and 9,000 grizzlies. So we’re far short of where we need to be,” Mattson said. “But even more important, if we look at the distribution, all of the populations are isolated or semi-isolated. So is it even possible to reach this goal? The short and sweet answer is yes.”
Part of the solution, Mattson said, is to allow bears to populate the entire Bitterroot Range, not just the small Bitterroot recovery area, which could support about 320 to 450 bears. If bears are allowed to use all the wild habitat in northern Idaho, it could host 650 to 1,050 bears.
Mattson details all the science to back this up in his recently published report titled “Grizzly Bear Promised Land,” which prompted the groups to write the letters.
“Grizzly bears are making their way naturally to central, north-central Idaho. But when you look at where the documented colonizing bears are, most are outside the recovery area” Mattson said. “We need to be listening to the bears as well as just drawing lines on the map.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack received one of the letters, asking that the U.S. Forest Service to create a multi-Forest Plan amendment requiring forest managers to identify and preserve grizzly connectivity areas and to create conservation standards to preserve secure habitat, such as limiting or closing roads. This would apply to the Nez Perce-Clearwater national forest in Idaho as well as national forests in Montana.
Tribal nations also want more of a say in Forest Service decisions that affect the grizzly bear. Elliott Moffett, Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment president, said the Nez Perce have been educating themselves on the Endangered Species Act and Forest Service responsibility.
“We want to get more involved in management of forests and move it toward, instead of hunting management, to more of a broader-based management scheme where diversity is something that we can appreciate and experience,” Moffett said. “Because that’s our traditional law that we try to follow – that we have to have that diversity, that all animals are sacred. We have to move in that direction.”
By protecting migration corridors so bears from different populations can interbreed, the populations wouldn’t have to be as large, Mattson said.
That’s why Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg got a letter asking the agency to help identify migration corridors and to prioritize the construction of animal under- and overpasses on highways along the corridors. Currently, Highway 93 and Interstate 90 are major barriers to grizzly migration and dispersal into areas of low bear population.
Michele Dieterich of Friends of the Bitterroot served on the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Committee, which heard repeatedly that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks needs money to hire more people to manage bears and residents need money to put conflict deterrents in place.
So, the letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland asked that a permanent fund be created to give landowners and communities financial assistance in setting up nonlethal deterrents, such as carcass pickup services, electric fencing and bear-proof containers.
After the Montana Legislature passed several bills that could negatively affect grizzly bears, such as limiting grizzly relocation and extending the wolf-trapping season, the species is facing greater challenges than it has in past decades. In the meantime, climate change could reduce the quality of existing habitat, further limiting their survival.
Bears are dispersing out of protected areas, but it’s not due to just population growth as some claim, Mattson said. A lot of their movement onto the plains is correlated with the loss of mountain food sources, such as whitebark pine seeds and the drought-reduced berry crop. So bears compensate by eating more meat, Mattson said.
Based upon recent legislation of Idaho and Montana, it’s evident that some would like to get rid of grizzly bears, wolves, and other predators. The science may support larger populations, but many residents in northern Idaho and some in Montana do not.
However, Louisa Wilcox, Grizzly Times co-founder, said most Americans want to protect grizzly bears and other wildlife. Especially now that COVID-19 has reawakened America’s interest in the natural world, as evidenced by the record numbers of tourists coming to Montana to view wildlife. Of the comments the USFWS received on the Yellowstone population delisting in 2015, the vast majority said they wanted to see increased protection of grizzly bears.
“People care about grizzly bears and the natural world. Grizzly bears are an icon of the Wild West, and they’re in only about 3% of the landscape where they once lived,” Wilcox said. “I think we have to see this debate in that context and as a reflection of our moral duty to protect these animals that really have no place else to go.”
Groups signing the letters included Friends of the Clearwater, Friends of the Bitterroot, Friends of the Wild Swan, Grizzly Times, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Environmental Protection Information Center, Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, Kiesha’s Preserve and Brian Peck.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.