Grizzly bear (Courtesy of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service).
The State of Montana is asking federal wildlife officials to delist grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, according to a news release Monday from the Governor’s Office. But recent legislation passed in the state and the proposed patchwork approach to management could stand in the way.
Gov. Greg Gianforte pointed to the population growth of grizzlies in the ecosystem, which is home to more than 1,000 bears and is entirely in Montana, spanning from Glacier National Park south to Missoula, as a reason for delisting. He also said Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has the structure to successfully take over complete management of the grizzlies in that area.
“Due to the work and sacrifice of many Montanans over decades, Montana has been successful in recovering grizzly bears in the NCDE,” Gianforte said in the release. “We’ve achieved the goals set for us. It’s time for the state to take over management.”
In a March report, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service preserved the bears’ status as a threatened species. FWS recognized the gains made in the ecosystem, but at the same time, expressed caution: “There is enough future uncertainty associated with conservation efforts, such that the grizzly bear in the lower-48 states remains likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all of its range.”
FWS, which manages grizzly recovery in the lower 48, also said when delisting, it must consider all six recovery zones as one entity. Of the six recovery zones, the Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems are the only two that have met recovery criteria. FWS has 90 days for their initial response to Montana’s petition. The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the petition.
To circumvent this issue, the state’s petition asks federal officials to designate Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem bears as a distinct population segment and to expand the area into eastern Montana, which according to the Governor’s Office, would allow for the delisting of grizzly bears across most of the northern half of the state.
But pointing to a recent ruling in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejecting an attempt by FWS to delist grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem, Mike Garrity said the courts were clear that the grizzly population must be considered one entity. The court’s decision is the second time since 2007 a federal judge has rejected delisting efforts in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“Because of the attempts to delist grizzlies in the Yellowstone [Ecosystem] and the lawsuits that followed, the courts have established there is only one population of grizzly bears in the Rockies, so the Gianforte administration is ignoring the courts in attempting to only delist in one recovery zone,” said Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said the court ruling is more nuanced, and the department feels like it has an adequate conservation strategy in place to address any issues that led the Ninth Circuit judge to block delisting in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. Part of the reason the judge denied a 2017 attempt to delist grizzlies in the Yellowstone Ecosystem is because FWS could not show how it would impact other grizzly recovery zones.
“We feel like we have those answers in place within our conservation strategy … we feel like what we’re proposing [considers other recovery zones],” Lemon said.
When grizzlies first became listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, their population was estimated to be in the hundreds, down from around 50,000 in the late 1800s. Now, approximately 1,900 bears occupy about 6 percent of their historical territory.
At the same time, the growing population has led to an extended territory where the bears roam, and delisting advocates say the greater overlap with private land leads to more conflicts, such as bears threatening cattle and sometimes humans.
However, Garrity contended the expanded territory is due to a lack of food caused by climate change and maintained grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem should continue to receive federal protections.
Because of the increased chance of conflict due to expanded territory of grizzlies, the Montana Legislature recently passed bills that prohibit FWP from relocating particular bears, enhance compensation for ranchers who lose livestock to bears or wolves, and allow for the killing of bears threatening livestock or humans.
But the bills could backfire when petitioning federal officials to delist grizzlies. At a June Interagency Grizzly Bear Commission meeting, Ken McDonald, chief of wildlife staff for Fish Wildlife and Parks, said the agency tried to warn legislators about the impact the bills could have on delisting but was dismissed based on FWS’s track record of not delisting.
In order to delist grizzlies, there must be evidence that states have adequate regulatory mechanisms in place to support grizzly populations. If the bears were delisted, state laws and administrative rules that are already in place become the primary regulatory and legal mechanisms guiding management.
However, FWS has said recent legislation could reduce the regulatory certainty for bears, potentially making delisting less likely.
The Montana Wildlife Federation echoed the point.
“Delisting grizzly bears is not just a numbers game. Adequate regulatory mechanisms must be in place to manage mortality before delisting can be considered. New laws resulting from the last legislative session have been passed that will hinder the department’s ability to do just that,” said Eric Clewis, connectivity and wildlife campaigns manager at MTWF.
Even with the Ninth Circuit ruling and the possible impact of recently passed legislation, Lemon said the agency is confident the state could handle the management of grizzlies with state regulations in place.
“We’ve got the conservation strategy. The bedrock of that is lined out in our administrative rule. We feel like the population is ready, the regulatory mechanisms to conserve the population are there. And our track record speaks for itself,” he said.
FWP Director Hank Worsech said the department has focused on recovery for decades, but in recent years has switched its focus to conflict management.
“We’ve shown the ability to manage bears, protect their habitat and population numbers. It’s time for us to have full authority for grizzly bears in Montana,” he said in the release.
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