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Are grizzlies ready to come off the endangered species list?

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Stacy Courville, a tribal wildlife biologist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, says he didn't need much equipment to track bear activity before 2005, when the tribe first started radio-collaring bears. Now grizzlies wander county roads by night, feast on fruit trees and chickens, and bed down on the valley floor. Courville's work requires on-site DNA collection and digital weight measurements. "Everything we needed to work bears used to fit in those two packs," he says, pointing into the back of his equipment-choked, government-issue rig. "Now it fits in the back of the truck."

His colleague Shannon Clairmont finishes the thought: "And in the front of the truck, and in the truck."

Courville is a heavyset man with a goatee who bears some resemblance to the animals he works with. On a recent spring day, he and Clairmont set up a remote wildlife camera to capture images of a nearby grizzly sow and her cubs. They hike along an irrigation canal, the Mission Range looming in the background.

click to enlarge On May 15, a Missoula man shot and killed a grizzly sow in the Blackfoot Valley. Her two cubs, born this year, will have to be handled closely by humans at the state’s wildlife rehab facility. That puts their likelihood of reintroduction to the wild at zero. - PHOTO COURTESY JESSE LEE VARNADO
  • Photo courtesy Jesse Lee Varnado
  • On May 15, a Missoula man shot and killed a grizzly sow in the Blackfoot Valley. Her two cubs, born this year, will have to be handled closely by humans at the state’s wildlife rehab facility. That puts their likelihood of reintroduction to the wild at zero.

"She's over in that brush," Clairmont says. "They bed down during the day, but at night, they wander just about anywhere."

Courville discovers a bear trail little more than a stone's throw from a dairy farm. It looks like a heavy truck drove through the damp grass on one wheel. Bear tracks litter the mud. From where Courville sets up the camera, you can see houses, barns and pastures. So can the bears.

"We've got more bears than Yellowstone," Courville says of the NCDE. (Yellowstone has just around 600 bears; the NCDE has more than 900.) "Granted, a third of them are in Glacier, but we've got a lot of bears."

Courville points west across the valley to what he calls the Moiese Hills. Last year, he says, a sow and her two cubs killed more than 20 dairy cows on a single farm there. CSKT tried everything, but never managed to catch her. Even culvert traps failed: The sow would simply keep her back leg out, grab the bait, and lift the trap door. "Free food," Clairmont says.

Courville says the sow eventually left the area when the tribe's traps became a nuisance.

On May 14, a farmer near Ronan said a two-year-old grizzly raided his chicken coop early in the morning, then returned to his property later that day. So he killed it. Wildlife officials with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes said they're looking into what happened.

"Up on the Flathead and all around western Montana, more and more people are raising chickens," says Proctor, from Defenders of Wildlife. "And they're becoming a major issue for grizzly bear security because grizzlies are learning that chickens are an easy meal. They're killing hundreds of chickens, particularly on the Flathead. Unfortunately, grizzlies are being killed because of chickens."

click to enlarge A grizzly sow with a cub in Yellowstone N.P. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2007, but environmental groups succeeded in returning the population to the Endangered Species list. - PHOTO COURTESY CHUCK BARTLEBAUGH
  • Photo courtesy Chuck Bartlebaugh
  • A grizzly sow with a cub in Yellowstone N.P. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2007, but environmental groups succeeded in returning the population to the Endangered Species list.

Delisting probably won't change the reactions to such conflicts. While the ESA requires the involvement of the Fish and Wildlife Service in all grizzly deaths, those operations are typically left to the state and tribes if they don't involve a clear case of illegal activity, so local managers are already dealing with the brunt of them.

As long as the bears aren't conflicting with humans, "we leave them there and start working with the folks on the landscape," Jamie Jonkel says. "Already I'm working with people in the Avon area, the Elliston area, the Deer Lodge area, the Georgetown Lake area, the Rock Creek area—and it's because the grizzlies are already showing up there...as long as we can keep ahead of the eight ball and build the social acceptance of these bears, everything will work out fine."

All or none

Grizzlies have already felt the heat of courtroom battles and debated scientific findings. The Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from the endangered species list in 2007, after it neared 600 bears. As with wolves, the decision quickly wound up in federal district court in Missoula. Environmental groups including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Alliance for the Wild Rockies argued several points. For starters, they said, a conservation strategy 25 years in the making had failed to account for the impacts of climate change on white bark pine in Yellowstone National Park—a staple food source for those bears. More importantly for grizzlies throughout the West, environmentalists contend that delisting a distinct population segment violates the conditions of the ESA. To them, it's delist all or delist none.

"Our position has always been, they were listed as one population," says Alliance for the Wild Rockies Executive Director Michael Garrity. "They weren't listed as a Yellowstone population, a Northern Continental population, a Kootenai population. And we don't think they should delist it until that entire population is recovered."

Judge Molloy ruled in favor of the environmental groups. The case is now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Chuck Jonkel, the bear expert, also says that removal of ESA protections would be a terrible mistake, in Yellowstone or for any other population that might appear to have recovered. Until he sees a guarantee that the state will maintain adequate funding for bear management, he says, he won't be changing his mind. The population of the U.S., he contends, doesn't really care about "a million here and a million there for bears and wolves. It's no hurt to them. It would be a huge amount of hurt to Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming...We can't afford the wolf and the grizzly bear...Where's the money going to come from at the state level?"

The state has yet to discuss a public hunt for grizzlies in the NCDE, with the revenue that could bring. The pieces of the delisting puzzle are still falling into place, with agencies looking to the Yellowstone conservation strategy as a model for post-delisting management in the NCDE. But Jonkel doubts the money the state could get from grizzly hunting license sales could float adequate management funding for the species. And he's far from alone in questioning how close Montana is to seeing a fully recovered, delisted grizzly population.

"It's premature," says conservationist and author Rick Bass. "I am concerned that we're not even asking the right questions. One political interest is in such haste to delist that every piece of information, every piece of data, looks to them like part of the answer they already know they want rather than being used the way good science can be used, which is to lead scientists to ask 20 more questions." Simply counting bears "is so 20th century," Bass says. "I have a really bad feeling that we're relying on ancient, outdated, simplistic, so-called science in this day and age, and with a species of such utter importance as the grizzly."

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