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Are grizzlies ready to come off the endangered species list?

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Servheen, of Fish and Wildlife, finds the skepticism about delisting in Yellowstone and elsewhere frustrating. Many environmental groups have helped out with numerous on-the-ground initiatives, he says, including The Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, and Defenders of Wildlife. Although Defenders opposed wolf delisting, they supported the removal of Yellowstone grizzlies from the ESA. But other groups simply want to cast stones, Servheen says. It's the old adage that it's easier to kick down a barn than it is to build one. "I don't even know who those people are," he continues. "I never see them. They never come to meetings, they're never involved in our recovery activities. But they can take a lawsuit to a judge in Missoula and stop 25 years of conservation efforts in the Yellowstone ecosystem."

State and federal agencies, landowners, and environmentalists have built what Servheen calls a "gold-plated" post-delisting management plan for Yellowstone grizzlies. Implementation would cost roughly $3.4 million per year. Ten percent of the bear population would be monitored with radio collars. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee secured restrictions on site development, livestock allotments, and road density for 85 percent of the grizzly habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. "We can't make everyone in the Yellowstone ecosystem move out, and we can't treat everywhere that grizzly bears are like it's Yellowstone National Park," he says. "That's what some of these people want. There's got to be a graded level of management...that's what we put in place. That's what the public will accept."

Yet the legal wrangling over delisting the Yellowstone population has strained the relationships that made the conservation strategy possible. Servheen is struggling to hold the show together in the park. Other agencies seem primed to walk away from the effort, having invested much and gained nothing. If the federal government fails in the appeals process, Servheen says, "the cooperative efforts to recovery grizzly bears will fall apart."

Just one bear

The Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem in northwestern Montana and northern Idaho contains one of the smallest and most vulnerable grizzly populations in the Northern Rockies. Estimates in the last decade place the total number of bears around 35. Unlike Yellowstone and the NCDE, the grizzly recovery zone here doesn't have a national park at its core. The mountains are rich in silver and copper deposits. Several mining companies, including Revett Minerals and Montanore, have been struggling for years to get permits to drill under the wilderness. Resource extraction would bring road expansion, developments, and people to the area. That means more garbage, more chickens, more conflicts, and, inevitably, more bear deaths.

Bass, the author, has lived in northwestern Montana for more than two decades and serves as a board member with the Yaak Valley Forest Council. Many of his books and articles have drawn national attention to the Cabinet-Yaak region. Bears here, he says, are the weakest link in the recovery chain. "I'm not seeing as many grizzlies in the Yaak," he adds. "I'm not seeing as much sign of grizzlies in the Yaak. And most troubling, I'm not seeing grizzlies in the Yaak where I used to see them."

The Cabinet-Yaak and the nearby Selkirk ecosystem are fragile enough that they merit full-time Fish and Wildlife staff. In any given year, Servheen estimates, the grizzlies have only three females with cubs. If just one of those sows is hit by a car or killed by a poacher, the population could be devastated. And if area landowners don't see grizzly recovery working elsewhere in the West, that too could be the end of the bears.

click to enlarge Government biologists in the last decade have turned to inventive hair snares and tree rubs to collect grizzly DNA samples without disturbing bears. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Government biologists in the last decade have turned to inventive hair snares and tree rubs to collect grizzly DNA samples without disturbing bears.

Recovery hasn't always run smoothly here, but it's gotten better thanks to the same kinds of efforts that paved the way for the NCDE grizzlies. "I can remember 15 or 20 years ago having public meetings up there and having people really mad that bears were around and that we were even talking about bears," Servheen says. "Now I think we've gone way beyond that. I mean, the county commissioners are in favor of grizzly bear recovery, of augmentation, of putting more bears in there."

This is also where Kate Kendall, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in West Glacier, has turned her attention this year. She spearheaded the grizzly population study in the NCDE in 2004, using elaborate hair snags to collect DNA samples and gather data on individual bears. Now she hopes to apply her experience with NCDE grizzlies to obtain more detailed data on grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak. Kendall says Lincoln County Commissioners invited her to give a presentation on her NCDE study last winter and liked what they heard. The county found public support and funding for the project, then asked Kendall to lead it. That level of interest and cooperation usually takes years to nurture.

Servheen fears those public investors in bear recovery will walk away if initiatives to delist grizzlies in Yellowstone—and, eventually, the NCDE—fail. The populations there were never as small as that in the Cabinet-Yaak, he says. Failing with a larger segment could make success with a smaller segment appear impossible. "They're watching Yellowstone right now," he says.

There is also a third perspective out there when it comes to grizzly recovery and delisting, one that takes a wild curve away from what environmentalists and government biologists are working on now.

Montana naturalist Doug Peacock, who has lived up close with grizzlies for months at a time over the past four decades, believes the entire question of threatened or endangered species recovery has become irrelevant.

Peacock credits the agencies and their recovery efforts in Yellowstone. They really brought the population back from the brink, he says. But the bears still don't have much of a chance.

Peacock has written three popular books on grizzlies. In Grizzly Years, he chronicles the way the bears helped him heal after he served as a medic in the Vietnam War. Now he fears the animals that gave him back "elements of my own humanity" will disappear as climate change alters the Montana landscape. And for him, the first step in that direction is assuming grizzlies can survive without the Endangered Species Act.

"Nobody could see global warming coming on in 1975, when they started to draw up all the management plans," he says. "Under such radically changing habitat conditions, the bear should technically never be delisted. This is not fair to anybody, but they're never going to be recovered. The habitat is going to change so fast in the next 20 years that the grizzlies are going to need three times as much habitat as we've already chosen to give them, just to maintain their current numbers. I don't think our culture is up to that level of tolerance and generosity."

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