Grizzly Bear Committee Plans for Future After Delisting

Grizzly Bear Committee Plans for Future After Delisting

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) met June 20 – 22 in Choteau, Montana to discuss the current status of the species’ recovery and make plans for the future. The venue on the Rocky Mountain Front was chosen so IGBC Executive Committee members could see, first-hand, the challenges people are facing as grizzly bears move back out onto the plains and how agencies and residents are responding to those challenges. On the last day of the meeting, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that it is removing the Yellowstone grizzly bear population from the list of threatened species. With this announcement, the IGBC is setting its sights on the delisting process for the Northern Continental Divide population, and increased efforts to recover the remaining small populations in the Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk, Bitterroot, and North Cascades

Yellowstone Grizzly Bear

The IGBC is a collaborative body comprised of state, federal, and tribal agencies with responsibility for managing grizzly bear populations and habitat across Idaho, Montana, Washington, Wyoming, and the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. For over three decades, the IGBC has coordinated policy, planning, management, research, and communication in support of the FWS recovery plan for the species.

The recent announcement that the Yellowstone Ecosystem population, which met the criteria set out in the recovery plan over a decade ago, will once again be removed from the list of threatened species is a testament to the effectiveness of the IGBC. Through their coordinated efforts, IGBC member agencies built the Yellowstone population from a low of around 150 bears to more than 700 and expanded the range of that population by more than double. Grizzly bears now occupy virtually all habitat that is biologically suitable and socially acceptable in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Though some environmental groups have vowed to challenge the delisting in court, science shows that the population is recovered. Management plans of the state wildlife agencies and federal land managers are in place to assure the population remains robust.

The IGBC accomplished similar, and potentially greater, success in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) in northwest Montana. There, the population has increased from a low of 300 - 400 bears in the mid-1970s to around 1,000 bears today and the range has expanded to include portions of the plains as far as 80 to 100 miles east of the Rocky Mountain Front. This success has not come without challenges, however. Where grizzlies once roamed the unbroken prairie with buffalo and Native Americans, they are now moving among farms, ranches, and communities. This new setting provides potential food sources for bears ranging from relatively easy to protect sites like bee hives or garbage cans and dumps, to more difficult attractants like flocks of sheep or cattle and large, irrigated fields of corn and other grain.

During the recent IGBC meeting in Choteau, the Executive Committee toured the surrounding area to get a first-hand look at the issues and solutions. On the Rockport Hutterite Colony, they saw how electric fencing was being used to prevent bears from gaining access to a turkey barn, refuse dump, and sheep bedding pen in a larger pasture. But without fencing the entire colony, residents still have to be aware that bears may be around their homes at any time.

On the Pondera Colony, the committee looked over several square miles of corn, wheat, and barley fields that cannot be fenced economically. While no one expressed a desire to see bears once again limited to remote wilderness areas, one member asked the committee, “What can we do when there are over a dozen bears living in these fields each summer, eating and digging and destroying our crops – not to mention posing a threat to workers in the fields?” Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to that question, especially as long as the population remains listed. Both people and bears must find ways to coexist.

In the nearby town of Valier, the committee met with the mayor and local citizens who expressed concerns about public safety and the effect of bears on the local economy. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) and local citizens organized a phone-tree to inform people when there is a bear in the community and a volunteer patrol formed to help monitor bear movements – and hopefully encourage bears to leave town.

In response to the expansion of grizzly bears onto the plains, MFWP is hiring a second bear management specialist for the area. Mike Madel, who has been MFWPs bear specialist in Choteau for 35 years told the committee that the area where he is seeing conflicts between people and bears has more than doubled in recent years. In spite of the help he has gotten from the Defenders of Wildlife, USDA APHIS Wildlife Services, and the FWS’ Partners Program, they simply cannot get ahead of the curve. MFWP and local residents are hopeful that delisting will occur within a few years and provide greater flexibility for managing this population and dealing with conflicts.

During the meeting, the IGBC hosted a public panel discussion on the transition from listed to managed populations. Panelists were Dr. Hilary Cooley, FWS Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator; Martha Williams, Director of MFWP; Donna Rutherford, Chief of the Blackfeet Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Department; Gary Burnette, Executive Director of the Blackfoot Challenge – a Montana-based nonprofit that works with landowners on “bottom-up” solutions to living with predators in ranching lands; and Gene Curry, a rancher and county commissioner from the area. Moderated by WMI Western Field Representative, Chris Smith, the panel addressed questions including how will the states approach managing bears after delisting, how can the IGBC assure the broader public that bears will be sustainably managed without the protections of the ESA, and how can the IGBC best communicate about the challenges of living and working in bear country – especially areas newly recolonized by bears. The audience included the full range of public interests, from attorneys with Earth Justice and representatives of the Endangered Species Coalition and Sierra Club, to the President of the Montana Wool Growers and other farmers and ranchers, to traditional Tribal members who oppose any hunting of grizzlies on spiritual grounds. As with the question raised about grizzly bears in corn fields, there were no easy answers. However, all sides agreed that open, frank, and honest communication and creative problem-solving needed to be part of the ongoing process of moving this population toward delisting.

During the business session of the meeting, the IGBC adopted an updated Charter that clarifies the roles and responsibilities of the Executive Committee, Ecosystem Subcommittees, and technical working groups. They also set proposed goals and objectives related to recovery and delisting for each of the six recovery areas for the coming five years. Among the proposed goals were: to prevail over legal challenges to delisting the Yellowstone population, transition the NCDE from listed to delisted status, make measurable progress toward recovery in the North Cascades, and minimize human-caused mortality in the remaining ecosystems. The proposed goals and objectives will undergo further review and prioritization before being adopted at the next IGBC meeting in December in Missoula, MT.

The agenda and supporting materials for the meeting are posted on the IGBC website. Minutes of the meeting will be added to the site in the near future.

Photo Credit
Fidelis Orozco, Flickr
July 17, 2017