By late last summer, the directors of wildlife departments in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana were becoming impatient.
Why was it taking the federal government so long to move toward delisting the greater Yellowstone grizzly bear from its threatened status under the Endangered Species Act? For years the grizzlies had “exceeded all established recovery criteria,” the directors wrote in an Aug. 28 letter to Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“With increasing conflicts, delisting delay is needlessly straining relationships vital to responsible grizzly bear management,” the directors wrote. “States and communities have little incentive to support species recovery if success does not end (Endangered Species Act) constraints and return species to state management.”
The states would “consider all available options,” the directors warned, if Fish and Wildlife didn’t take action toward delisting quickly.
Last month, state officials finally got what they wanted, as Fish and Wildlife announced it was formally starting the process of delisting the Yellowstone grizzly by publishing a draft rule and other documents online for public comment.
But the road to delisting — and likely hunting — of the apex predator is only just beginning as each state also must take public input on how it plans to take over management of the bears from the feds. And if a past grizzly delisting effort is any indication, the coming months also will include drawn-out legal battles between state and federal agencies and environmental groups who argue the animals still need protection.
Officials estimate the process of transferring grizzly management to the three states won’t be finalized any sooner than the end of this year. That means grizzly hunts wouldn’t happen any earlier than spring or fall of 2017.
“This is a huge undertaking, and it’s one that’s never really been done this way before,” said Gregg Losinski, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game spokesman and member of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. “This is one time where we’re coordinating with neighboring states (on wildlife management). That doesn’t happen with anything else.”
Second delisting effort
Yellowstone grizzlies were first listed as threatened in 1975, when they numbered fewer than 150. In the decades since their population over the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has soared to more than 700, well past the minimum population recovery goal of 500, according to the most recent count. And state wildlife officials say the counting method likely underestimates how many there really are.
Population growth began to level off in the early 2000s. Scientists now say the 35,000 square-mile ecosystem may have reached its grizzly carrying capacity. As their numbers topped out in recent years, the bears have been traveling further and occasionally getting into trouble.
“With the increased amount of bears we’ve got more conflicts, with humans and livestock,” said Derick Attebury, an Idaho Fish and Game commissioner based in Idaho Falls. He said for that reason, most people he’s talked to so far in eastern Idaho are supportive of the delisting proposal.
Grizzlies have wandered to places in Idaho the past couple years that they haven’t been seen in generations, Losinski said, a good indication they are ready to be managed like other big game.
But so far, one of the primary hurdles to delisting has surrounded the health of the whitebark pine. Whitebark pinecone seeds, a traditional grizzly fall food source, have been in short supply as the trees have been decimated by effects of climate change, such as pine beetles.
The trees were the key sticking point last time Fish and Wildlife moved to delist grizzlies in 2007. Environmental groups sued, and a district court ruled two years later that the federal agency hadn’t considered impacts of whitebark pine decline on the health of the bears. Grizzly protections were restored.
More recent research, however, shows that the bears have learned to be less reliant on whitebark seeds as a primary food source, and have turned more heavily to more than 200 other types of food. “Grizzly bears in the GYE do not seek out whitebark pine in years of poor seed production but make use of other foods within their home ranges instead,” the Fish and Wildlife proposed delisting rule states.
Some people aren’t convinced. Andrea Santarsiere, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said she agrees Yellowstone grizzlies are highly adaptable. But she said grizzlies are increasingly losing out on two of their other food staples, too, which means protections should stay in place.
Due to climate change, fewer big game animals are dying in harsh winters. Those animals typcially make prime meals as grizzlies emerge from their dens, Santarsiere said. And over the years the Yellowstone cutthroat trout population, another traditional bear food source, also has decreased.
“The decline of food sources equals more human-bear conflicts,” Santarsiere and other environmental group representatives argue, as the bears wander farther afield in search of meals.
Another concern from Santarsiere and others is how grizzly hunting would be handled by the states outside the so-called “demographic monitoring area” — the approximately 20,000 square mile region where grizzly numbers would continue to be closely monitored under the delisting proposal. In that area, under the proposal, hunting couldn’t take place if the population was below 600 in any given year.
States could “potentially allow trophy hunting on an unlimited number of bears outside the (monitoring area),” Santarsiere argued.
But Losinski said those concerns “aren’t valid.” If Idaho Fish and Game were to allow big grizzly hunts outside the monitoring area, it would impact the numbers inside, he said, as bears can travel great distances and don’t pay attention to lines on a map.
The Yellowstone grizzly population “is a model of how you do (species) recovery,” Losinski said. “If this is not enough — sorry, I don’t know how you’re going to get more,” out of the Endangered Species Act process.
“We’ve seen multiple delays throughout this process,” said Dustin Miller, administrator of the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation. “We’re ready to assume management of this population. It’s time to reward the states for being excellent conservation partners and following through with their commitments.”
A long, confusing process of planning and public comment is ahead before any grizzly delisting plan is finalized.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public comments on its proposed delisting rule until May 10. There are already more than 500 digital comments submitted. The agency also is asking for comment on two other documents — a draft supplement to its 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, and a draft conservation strategy.
Meanwhile, each of the three states must go through its own public outreach and planning process on how it will independently manage the grizzlies once they are delisted. Wyoming is the furthest along, and already has a 60-page planning document posted for public comment. Finally, the three states will have to approve a “memorandum of agreement,” which lays out a framework about how they will work together to review bear populations each year and divvy up hunting amounts for each state.
“There are a lot of layers that will all connect together,” Losinski said.
In preparation for delisting, Idaho has since 2002 had a 51-page, Legislature-approved Yellowstone grizzly bear management plan in place, though it hasn’t been much use until now. It estimated the state’s grizzly bear management efforts after delisting would cost about $145,000 per year, which may be close to $200,000 in today’s dollars.
“It is unlikely that grizzly bear hunting seasons will be established immediately upon delisting,” the Idaho document states. “Establishment of grizzly bear hunting seasons will be conducted using the same process, including public meetings, as for other game species.”
Some specifics about how Idaho will handle delisting likely will be discussed at Fish and Game Commission meetings scheduled next month, Attebury said.
“Grizzlies definitely have adapted, populations have increased and are stable,” he said. “They’re finding those food sources. They’re surviving.”