Erin Edge, Rocky Mountain Regional Associate
Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, grizzly bears are recovering in the Northern Rockies. So much so, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is progressing toward delisting of subpopulations in the Northern Continental Divide and greater Yellowstone ecosystems, two of the six official grizzly bear recovery areas in the lower 48 states. But are grizzlies really ready to lose federal protections in these two areas? This summer I’ve been taking a hard look at that question, carefully evaluating documents released by FWS to see how they will impact the future of grizzly bear recovery.
In June, Defenders submitted comments on proposed changes to the Yellowstone grizzly bear recovery criteria, including a new methodology for estimating the number of bears in the ecosystem. To some this may sound trivial, but the estimated number of bears partially determines if federal protections can be safely removed. We urge FWS to maintain a conservative counting method until problems with the new counting method are resolved.
Additionally, two major food resources for Yellowstone grizzly bears have declined significantly: cutthroat trout and whitebark pine. Without these food resources, grizzlies must roam farther to find food or adapt to eating different foods. This may lead to an increase in human-bear conflicts as grizzlies search for alternative calorie sources, particularly outside Yellowstone National Park boundaries. Grizzly bears that leave Yellowstone face many threats, including roadways and vast expanses of private lands that hold temptations such as garbage, chickens and livestock–all of which can lead to the death of bears.
Also, Yellowstone grizzlies are disconnected from other grizzly populations. Long term success of this population will require reconnecting it with other populations to increase genetic diversity. For these reasons we would like to see grizzly bears afforded protections in important connective habitats between Yellowstone and the Bitterroot and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems. Grizzly bears need secure lands between these ecosystems in order to expand, obtain high quality food, raise their cubs, find winter dens and continue down the road to recovery.
Over the next couple of months, we expect new scientific studies to emerge pertaining to Yellowstone grizzly bears. The more we understand about Yellowstone grizzlies and their current status, the better informed we will be to assess the eventual delisting proposal and make sure these concerns are addressed.
Grizzly bear recovery in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) has been an amazing conservation success story to date. As a result, FWS intends to propose delisting this population in 2014, and we are currently reviewing a draft conservation strategy that will set the stage for cooperative agency recovery efforts beyond delisting.
Our top priority is to make sure that grizzly bears in the NCDE are given the opportunity to continue to expand their range if federal protections are removed. The NCDE grizzly bear population has the potential to:
- Recolonize portions of the Bitterroot recovery area in southwest Montana and central Idaho, which is currently devoid of grizzly bears;
- Reconnect with the isolated Yellowstone population; and
- Boost the small grizzly population found in the Cabinet Yaak recovery area in northern Montana and Idaho.
This will be a slow process, particularly if there are high human-related grizzly bear mortalities in lands between these ecosystems. So in order to effectively reconnect grizzly populations, habitats between them must be sufficiently protected to minimize risk to the bears.
To accomplish this, FWS has proposed creating multiple management zones (as shown on the map to the right).We support the idea of continuing variable levels of protections for grizzly bears and their habitat in areas both within the Primary Conservation Area (PCA) and outside the PCA post-delisting. This framework has the potential to secure habitat protections into the future and allow for grizzly bears to connect into other ecosystems. However, there is room for improvement. To really ensure that dispersing grizzlies can safely move between these ecosystems, public land management agencies will have to take a hard look at the potential impacts to grizzly bears of open roads on these public lands.
It has been repeatedly shown that grizzly bears are more likely to die the closer they are to roadways. Further, human development on private lands is increasing, leaving patchy habitat, especially in expansion areas. If those seemingly “secure” patches are riddled with open roads and routes with lots of human activity, the chances of a grizzly bear safely crossing the landscape plummet. Maintaining adequate habitat protections on public land will help grizzlies navigate this maze of threats.
Click here to submit public comments on the Draft NCDE Conservation Strategy before August 1. We’ll be monitoring the development of this strategy closely leading up to a possible delisting sometime next year.