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Beyond the Cabinet-Yaak
Grizzly delisting continues to gain traction in other parts of the region
For several years now, conversations about the future of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems have repeatedly turned to the same topic: the seeming inevitability of delisting proposals from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Populations in those areas have responded to decades of recovery efforts by gradually growing in size. The latest estimates put those numbers at 740 bears in the Greater Yellowstone and roughly 1,000 in the NCDE. Agencies at the state, tribal and federal levels continue to work in tandem to maintain and build on that success.
During a meeting of Montana’s Environmental Quality Council May 15, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Jeff Hagener offered an update on grizzly bear management with a nod to the delisting timeline. Hagener told officials at the meeting that he expects FWS to propose a rule removing Endangered Species Act protections for grizzlies in Yellowstone by late 2015. A similar rule for bears in the NCDE would likely follow in late 2016, Hagener added. Populations in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selway-Bitterroot ecosystems are still too far from recovery to receive similar considerations.
“[This timeline] has been in numerous discussions recently, over the last year and a half,” Hagener told the Indy.
Hagener’s update generated an Associated Press report and headlines across the state, but the details didn’t come as much of a surprise to those keeping an eye on the grizzly management discussion. Agencies have been on track to hitting those tentative dates for some time, completing a series of steps on the path to delisting. Just last year, FWS published a draft Conservation Strategy Plan for NCDE grizzlies, drawing thousands of public comments. Officials are now in the process of incorporating that feedback into a final document they expect to release later this year. “That has to be done first because it demonstrates the existence of adequate regulatory mechanisms,” says FWS Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Chris Servheen.
Biologists will then conduct a threat analysis to determine if the species is still at risk before making any decision on whether to propose delisting. Servheen anticipates that step will probably begin next year.
In the Greater Yellowstone, delisting is a far more advanced and familiar issue. ESA protections were already lifted for the bears in 2007, but a legal challenge by several environmental groups led to re-listing two years later. Biologists have since completed a food synthesis study to address the concerns raised in court—primarily, the impacts of declining whitebark pine on grizzly bear diet and health. The results of that report prompted the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee last November to hold a vote over offering “strong but conditioned support” for the advancement of a proposed delisting rule. The motion passed the subcommittee 10-4, with representatives from both FWP and Yellowstone National Park voting against.
There have been some recent hiccups in the recovery process. Last fall’s government shutdown kept federal biologists out of the field for 16 days during the height of grizzly trapping and monitoring season. Members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team were forced to call off the final month of their fall trapping schedule in Yellowstone National Park, during which they’d intended to collect biological samples from and apply radio collars to grizzlies. The shutdown also delayed the release of the Yellowstone food synthesis report due to the inability of some IGBC members to gather for previously scheduled meetings. Servheen refers to the setbacks as “kind of a bump in the road.”
“We missed some tracking time, so we didn’t catch some bears we wanted to catch,” he says. “Just erodes our sample size somewhat. It wasn’t a crisis, but if that kind of foolishness continues, it will really make things difficult for us.”
Despite how often 2015 and 2016 have come up in the delisting discussion, the timeline remains tentative. There are still steps for various agencies to complete, and FWS has repeatedly declined to speculate on when a proposed delisting rule might be expected even for Yellowstone grizzlies. “The Service is currently evaluating the status of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with regards to a potential delisting proposal,” says FWS spokesman Gavin Shire in Washington, D.C. “We do not have a timeline for this process. If proposed, the rule would go through a transparent process, including a public comment period.” (Alex Sakariassen)