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Are grizzlies ready to come off the endangered species list?

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The ESA allocated millions of dollars toward preservation of the wolves, but that didn't stop poachers from slaughtering hundreds over subsequent decades. Restoration efforts ramped up in the 1990s, when 66 gray wolves from Canada were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park as an experimental population. Others were reintroduced in central Idaho, and more wolves drifted south from Canada. Today it's estimated there are about 1,500 gray wolves in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, making this the fastest recovery in the history of the ESA, some experts say.

The wolves were delisted in Montana and Idaho in 2008. Responsibility for managing them fell to the states, at a time when the wolves' numbers were growing by about 20 percent a year. And then the situation fell apart. In 2009, Idaho and Montana approved wolf hunts. That same year, 14 conservation groups sued to reinstate the wolves' endangered status, questioning the number of wolves necessary to declare the population recovered and the federal government's ability to delist wolves in some states and not others.

Last fall Federal District Court Judge Donald Molloy, in Missoula, ruled in favor of the environmentalists. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers parts of the Endangered Species Act, appealed Molloy's decision. The ensuing controversy and its outcome were ugly in many ways and ultimately could damage the wolves—leaving advocates for grizzlies unsure what the next steps for the bears ought to be.

The opposition to delisting gray wolves fractured earlier this year, in the midst of the appeal. Ten of the 14 groups tried to reach a settlement with the government. Molloy shot them down. Then, last month, Sen. Jon Tester attached a rider delisting wolves in Montana and Idaho to the congressional budget compromise.

Biologists winced at a species being delisted by political maneuvering. Montana, meanwhile, has proposed a hunting quota of 220 wolves for this fall, while several environmental groups are already challenging the constitutionality of Tester's wolf rider.

click to enlarge A grizzly on the Flathead Reservation. In 1975, the federal government listed the bears in the lower 48 states as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Grizzlies have made an impressive recovery in subsequent decades. - PHOTO COURTESY SHANNON CLAIRMONT
  • Photo courtesy Shannon Clairmont
  • A grizzly on the Flathead Reservation. In 1975, the federal government listed the bears in the lower 48 states as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Grizzlies have made an impressive recovery in subsequent decades.

Chuck Jonkel's son, Jamie Jonkel, is carrying on the family business: He's an FWP bear biologist. The younger Jonkel says he doesn't have to look any farther than the Blackfoot Valley to see how the wolf debate is shaping discussions about the future of grizzlies. He's spent years building close relationships with landowners there in the hopes of reducing conflicts with bears. Ranchers were skeptical at first, he says, but they gradually became more open to measures such as bear-proof garbage cans and electric fences. They've shown that they're willing to help the bears coexist with people, but the controversy around wolves now gives them pause. "A lot of them were saying, 'Well Jamie, here we're doing all this good stuff to recover the grizzlies on the south end. I don't like living with them, but I'm willing to let them use some of my ranchland. I'm doing this because I'm hoping to see them get delisted someday.' They have this dream of someday being able to draw a grizzly bear tag so they can go hunting for a big male."

Jonkel's fears of eroding support for grizzlies on the Blackfoot have already been realized elsewhere. Down in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, bear reintroduction took a turn for the worse. Repeated court involvement in wolf recovery left some folks doubting the viability of the Endangered Species Act, says Servheen, from U.S. Fish and Wildlife. It's one thing for state, tribal, and federal agencies to differentiate between wolves and bears and their respective challenges, he says, but their partners, landowners, don't necessarily make those distinctions; lately, many don't believe that the goal of a delisted population of big predators can ever be met. "The wolf issue has really contaminated our ability to put bears into the Selway-Bitterroot," Servheen says.

"The idea that wolves were put in there and now are recovered and doing fine, but the courts and the environmental groups continue to interfere with delisting those wolves, that just made people say, 'You know, we're not going to deal with bears. We're not going to even think about bears, because look what happened with wolves.'"

Servheen's fear that the wolf debate has even eroded public support for the ESA seems justified. The ESA has become a political flashpoint. Republicans in the Montana Legislature this year tried to nullify the act. Additional actions in Congress over the past four months—including a bill proposed by Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg to delist all wolf species nationwide—have threatened to politically weaken the ESA.

Meanwhile, others decry its politicization. "The ESA would be meaningless if we can just conveniently delist species based on politics instead of science," says Proctor, of Defenders of Wildlife. "We do need success stories—and we have success stories. The fact that most species that are on the endangered species list are still on earth is a success story. Species have been delisted. But if we start politically delisting species and then they go down the tubes or become extinct as a result of using politics instead of science, that's not a success story. That closes the door on potential success stories in the future."

'They wander just about anywhere'

The antagonists in the wolf wars are still working together on grizzlies. In Missoula, Defenders of Wildlife has circulated hundreds of leaflets about safe co-habitation with bears. They've installed bear-proof food storage lockers at state campsites such as Salmon Lake and the Blackfoot Valley's Russell Gates. And they've funded successful electric fence initiatives for livestock pastures and chicken coops throughout western Montana. Proctor estimates his organization has spent $435,000 on such bear projects since 1999.

click to enlarge Shannon Clairmont, left, and Stacy Courville track a GPS-collared grizzly bear in the Mission Valley. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Shannon Clairmont, left, and Stacy Courville track a GPS-collared grizzly bear in the Mission Valley.

"Defenders works incredibly well with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on grizzly bear conservation," Proctor says. "Not as well on the wolf issue. It has hurt our relationship, but the on-the-ground state and tribal bear managers around the NCDE are incredible. They do such a great job, they're so dedicated, and we continue to work with them as much as possible."

The Blackfoot Challenge has augmented Jamie Jonkel's efforts in FWP's Region 2. They spearhead a carcass pick-up program for Blackfoot Valley ranchers each spring to eliminate bear attractants. They organize phone trees to spread word of grizzly activity. The group's wildlife committee has led workshops, field demonstrations, and public meetings to ensure that bears and humans can coexist.

Defenders also has turned its attention to the Mission Valley, where grizzlies weren't seen much a decade ago. Residents once recognized grizzlies more as an animal that kept to the mountains, well away from crops, garbage cans, and livestock. Conflicts were few. Coexisting with the hulking omnivores was hardly a pressing concern. Now, environmentalists and government researchers are having trouble keeping up.

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