- Top panel of bear specialists recommends US Fish and Wildlife Service develop a new proposal to delist Yellowstone grizzly population.
Recently (December), the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) unanimously recommended the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) put out a new proposal for removing grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone region from federal Endangered Species Act protections. The IGBC includes the top managers from every state and federal agency managing grizzlies and grizzly habitat.
More than 700 grizzlies now roam this corner of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, which covers more than 12 million acres in and around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks. More grizzlies live here now than inhabited the entire lower 48 states in 1975, a three-fold increase from the estimated 225 bears that roamed the Greater Yellowstone in 1981.
Grizzly numbers and range are also expanding in Montana’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, where nearly 1,000 bears are now estimated to live. USFWS is looking at proposing the delisting of this population as well, and collected public comments for the post-delisting management plan in summer 2013. If the US Fish and Wildlife Service accepts the IGBC’s recommendation, as seems likely, it will issue a new proposed rule in the Federal Register. That will be followed by a multi-month public comment period. Given the time it will take to write and review the new rule, actual delisting likely will not occur until 2015.
The USFWS delisted grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone following similar recommendations in 2007, but lawsuits by environmental groups led the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to return the bears to endangered species protections two years later, citing questions raised about the decline of whitebark pines. The trees produce a protein-rich nut grizzly’s relish, but have declined as much as 70 percent in the Greater Yellowstone in recent years due to attacks by blister rust fungus and mountain pine beetles.
The USFWS then requested that the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, led by experts at the US Geological Survey, review the relationship between grizzly bear population health and recent declines in whitebark pine. In December, the IGBC received the results of that review. Researchers found grizzlies that previously foraged on whitebark pine in the fall have turned to other food sources—meat, chief among them—and haven’t displayed any distinguishable loss of body fat in that exchange. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team also released statistics that show bear deaths within the region fell by half in 2013, while cub production remained high. In fact the number of female grizzlies with cubs in the Yellowstone ecosystem was the highest ever counted in 2013.
For more than two decades, researchers studying the chemical make-up of hair samples found that Yellowstone grizzlies are among the most carnivorous bear populations in North America’s interior, according to IGBC’s recent report. Depending on the age and sex of a bear, meat makes up anywhere from 45 to 79 percent of the protein in their diet. Whitebark pine nut production is cyclical, as is the case with huckleberries and other foods. Some years they are prolific while other years they produce very few. And so grizzly bears were already accustomed to dealing with such diet shifts, substituting animal protein in poor seed years. Recent studies have borne this out, showing grizzlies have been able to maintain fat levels equal to that of the best whitebark seed years. Chris Servheen, USFWS grizzly bear recovery coordinator and a spokesman for the IGBC, also points to grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDC) as a population that has grown 3 percent per year for decades without the presence of whitebarks.
“Whitebark pine has been functionally extinct in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem for 30 years due to the impacts of white pine blister rust,” says Servheen. In December, the IGBC said it felt confident the Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly population is adapting well to a similar change. “The sense of the committee is that there is no measurable negative impact on either individual grizzly bears or the grizzly population as a whole,” says Servheen. “Given that, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee recommended that the USFWS should move forward and produce a new proposed delisting rule. The whitebark question was the only issue the 9th Circuit used to state that the Yellowstone grizzlies should not be delisted. The new analysis by the Study Team should address the concerns that the judges had about how declines in whitebark would impact the health of the Yellowstone grizzlies.” If recent history is any indication, it’s nearly guaranteed that new lawsuits from environmental groups will challenge any move by USFWS to delist, which may well return it to the chambers of a federal judge.
“I’m sure we’ll go through the legal knothole again,” says Servheen.
RMEF’s take: The booming populations of grizzlies in both the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems represent the Endangered Species Act doing exactly what it was intended to do: help imperiled species recover. That’s no simple task, especially when that animal can weigh a thousand pounds and roam 100 square miles or more. But the top bear biologists in America unanimously agree that we have achieved healthy, growing and sustainable grizzly populations. Instead of celebrating this success, though, the same serial litigators that overturned the Yellowstone ecosystem grizzly delisting in 2009 are loading their legal cannons for yet another round of lawsuits. This not only undercuts the letter of the law, it betrays all the sportsmen and diverse communities that have provided funding and other real forms of support to this recovery effort for decades. RMEF fully supports the conclusions of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee: delisting is long overdue in the greater Yellowstone.
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