THE BUZZ: Bear Minimum

By on September 14, 2016

The debate over delisting the grizzly bear rages on as feds push yet again for protection removal.

he very famous and affable Bear 399 (left) and an image of the sow with her cubs. (Photo: Roger Hayden)

he very famous and affable Bear 399 (left) and an image of the sow with her cubs. (Photo: Roger Hayden)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – It’s impossible to separate politics from the grizzly bear issue. The pending removal from the Endangered Species Act is embroiled in bureaucracy—a Washington versus Wyoming tug-of-war over who gets a say in how the top-of-the-food-chain bruin is managed.

Proponents of removing the grizzly from the Endangered Species Act point to the science. Grizzly numbers show an incredible rebound of the silvertip bear. Population is dispersed among five identifiable habitats in the Lower 48, and pushing the magic 2,000 number—the widely accepted minimum needed for a healthy and sustainable populace. Of an estimated 1,800 grizzly in the Lower 48, about 670 to 750 roam Wyoming/Montana/Idaho with an estimated 620 or so in Yellowstone. So the bear is back, claim federal officials including members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Political pressure also motivates federal scientists. Roger Hayden is the managing director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. He believes USFWS officials need to show the Act designed to offer protection for threatened species actually works in bringing their numbers back to sustainability.

“I think the Fish and Wildlife Service is in such a hurry, they are rushing it to meet political pressure in November,” Hayden said. “They want to show that the ESA works, therefore the attacks on it will diminish.”

State government agencies like Wyoming Game and Fish play the politics card as well. From the governor’s office on down, the attitude in Wyoming is decidedly anti-DC.

“There is a disdain for the federal government. There is also tremendous pressure from the states, especially from Wyoming’s governor Matt Mead, in particular, to wrest control from the feds,” Hayden said. “Game and Fish likes to say they are better equipped to manage the state’s wildlife but their constituents are basically hunters and ag, and they’ve always had huge political pull in Wyoming. It’s more about having control as a state and resentment toward the feds.”

Hayden and his counterparts argue science and politics as well. They say the science backs their claims that while healthy numbers are evidenced throughout the U.S., including Alaska, other factors paint a less-than-ideal recovery scenario.

First and foremost, the grizzly’s diet has been severely compromised. David Mattson worked for the grizzly study team for two decades. He retired from the U.S. Geological Survey two years ago. The research wildlife biologist says it’s become increasingly difficult for the griz to find the food it needs to thrive.

“[There are consequences for] Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, related to the loss of most whitebark pine and cutthroat trout, and the apparent shift of surviving bears to eating more army cutworm moths and meat from terrestrial mammals—among other things,” Mattson stated in treatise on the USFWS proposal to remove grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem from protection under ESA.

The lower quality food sources affect the overall health of the grizzly population, and the search for substitutes to historic dietary staples has turned some bears from omnivores to meat-seeking carnivores where their lust for flesh has led them to some undesirable places.

Those opposed to delisting also get hung up on the politics. If management of the grizzly is turned over to individual states, wildlife advocates fear a hunting bloodbath at worst. At best, state agencies have a track record of biased management, according to Hayden.

“We are not anti-hunting, and this isn’t so much about trophy hunting—which we are opposed to—but it’s the Game and Fish management philosophy that I don’t like. It’s skewed to hunters and ag,” Hayden said. “I have no problem with hunting or ranching. I just think Game and Fish needs to manage for everyone in the state.”

Other consternation over federal agencies and their push to delist is a concern over flawed science, outdated research technique and data, and corruption within the government. Mattson, Hayden, and others don’t trust IGBST scientists, in particular, because they are not objective. Their research is government funded and conducted with an outcome in mind, Hayden claims.

The annual IGBST grizzly report—usually out in March or April—was nowhere to be found for much of the year, causing some to speculate it had something to do with the USFWS push to delist. IGBST leader Frank van Manen says the delay was primarily due to staffing cuts and too many hours devoted to meetings over federal delisting. It was not a political thing, he said. The report was finally released a few weeks ago.

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Population health indicators

Grizzly bears regularly roam hundreds of miles in search of food, so they need lots of room. When whitebark pine and cutthroat trout become hard to find, griz spread out farther. They cross highways, they run into ranches, they bump in subdivisions. The interactions cause migraines for wildlife managers and, worse, could give a false impression grizzlies are everywhere and the land can hold no more.

Hayden says conflict can be curtailed with better awareness and stronger requirements pertaining to urban-wildlife interface.

Problem bears and grizzly mortality was at an all-time high in 2015. A record 61 griz deaths were recorded—47 of those human-caused. Humans account for some 80 percent of all grizzly bear deaths whether it’s a hunter mistaking a griz for a black bear, a hiker defending himself against an attacking bruin, a problem bear being put down by wildlife management officials, or simply road kill.

Last year’s numbers were shocking to some. The pro-delisting crowd claimed it pointed to a saturation of habitat—there were simply too many bears in too little space. Mattson and others, however, believe the high mortality is exactly why the bear needs continued protection. In a desperate search for food, bears are dispersing into conflict areas—ending up on cattle ranches and mixing it up with elk hunters.

Another aspect of grizzly bear habitat and a healthy population matrix is genetic diversity. The Yellowstone grizzly lives in an isolated habitat. There is limited connectedness for GYE bears and little evidence those grizzly ever comingled with other bears in the U.S. or Canada. Without a healthy number of bears, the GYE griz is under constant threat of a shallow gene pool.

“The [USFWS] uses outdated science to categorize Yellowstone’s grizzly bears as part of a purported continent-spanning subspecies when the best available science clearly shows that the Yellowstone population is part of a clade (Clade 4) with an ancient and unique history, a restricted distribution, and warranting consideration as an evolutionarily unique and threatened genetic lineage,” Mattson stated.

Political football

The grizzly bear was first listed as a threatened species in 1975. A formal recovery plan was established by 1993, and in 2003 those recovery goals had been met for six consecutive years. USFWS first proposed removing the griz from protection in 2005.

In 2007, the GYE segment of grizzly bear population was removed from the threatened species list. The move was challenged by several lawsuits. Two years later, a federal district judge agreed with the suits and placed the bear back on the threatened species list. USFWS appealed in 2010 but was denied in 2011.

In 2013, the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, and Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team made a recommendation that grizzly bears again be removed from ESA protection.

A decision about delisting the grizzly bear is expected soon. If the bear is removed, feds can expect pushback.

“The NGOs [non-governmental organizations] I’ve talked to say there is any number of places where they can be sued. This thing could be delayed two to three years,” Hayden said. PJH

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