Grizzly Bear in Grand Teton National Park

Battle lines will be drawn in fight over delisting grizzly bears

by Michael Wright/Bozeman Daily Chronicle | DECEMBER 20, 2015

Not everyone who ventures out into the wild gets to see one. They are hard to find, until they aren’t. But they are there. Everybody knows it, and everybody wants to know more, which is why a room full of people at the Bozeman Public Library spent a recent night listening to Frank van Manen tell them what government researchers have learned about the Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.

“When you’re out here in the ecosystem,” van Manen said during the presentation, “you sense the presence of large predators.”

The skinny, bald man from the Netherlands is the leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, the group tasked with providing policymakers and bear managers with information about the Yellowstone population, which they last counted at 717 bears. Over the course of his presentation, he moved through what the IGBST has learned about the region’s iconic carnivore.

This presentation came at a poignant time. For the second time in the last 10 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided the grizzly’s current presence is enough. USFWS and state wildlife officials have been meeting and talking for well over a year, looking for a way to take the grizzly bears off the endangered species list, a move that would remove protections for the bears and give state wildlife managers more leeway in managing the animals.

A delisting proposal has been rumored to be on the way for months now, but it hasn’t come. And that has made some anxious. The directors of wildlife agencies in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana sent a letter to USFWS director Dan Ashe in August, calling a delisting proposal “long overdue” and saying they expected to see a proposal in early November. Ashe wrote back a month later, after USFWS had at least two more meetings with the states, telling them a delisting proposal would come by the end of 2015.

Now, USFWS spokeswoman Serena Baker has said any proposal for delisting won’t be out until early 2016.

“Right now … there are no formal agreements yet that have been made,” Baker said. “We’re continuing to work with states and partners on those issues.”

Armed with the data that comes from van Manen’s team, they all believe the Yellowstone population is recovered. But they want to be sure whatever they put forward can be defended in court.

Besides, they’ve been through all of this before.

Before man moved west, the grizzly bear had a lot of room to roam. Grizzlies lived on the plains, but people pushed them into the mountains, which are now the only places they thrive.

The grizzlies of the lower 48 were first listed as “threatened” in 1975, just two years after President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. The number of bears in the Yellowstone area had dwindled to fewer than 150. The endangered species listing stopped the hunting of the bears and created the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, which van Manen has led since 2012.

Since then, the USFWS has been working on restoring grizzly populations in six recovery zones around the West: the North Cascades, Selkirks, Cabinet-Yaak, Bitterroots, Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone. Grizzlies have been documented in each area except the Bitterroots, and the two largest populations are in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone.

After 40 years, the government considers the recovery of grizzlies in the Yellowstone region a great conservation success. Numbers-wise, they feel confident the bears should be delisted. The recovery goal for the Yellowstone bears was 500, and the numbers have hovered around the 700-level for the past few years. They consider the population to be stable.

Chris Servheen, the USFWS grizzly recovery coordinator, said other biological factors like distribution and reproduction indicate the population is recovered.

The Fish and Wildlife Service first tried to remove protections for the bears in 2007, but the agency was sued by environmental groups almost immediately.

Tim Preso, managing attorney at Earth Justice, was one of the attorneys who worked on the case. In a decade and a half of fighting legal battles on behalf of the environment, Preso has gone to battle over a staggering variety of environmental issues: wolves, bison, fracking fluids disclosure and, in 2007, grizzly bears.

“I think the setting for that case was pretty stark,” Preso said.

He says that because the abundance of whitebark pine was declining. Whitebark pine trees exist in cold, high-elevation places in western North America. The high-calorie seeds from the trees are fantastic fall feed for grizzly bears preparing to hibernate.

“They can really put on fat, just from that resource,” van Manen, the government researcher, said in an interview.

But white pine blister rust and mountain pine beetle have killed stands of the trees in forests across the region over the last decade or so. The tree itself became a candidate for endangered species listing in 2011, and the USFWS says whitebark pine is in “an overall long-term pattern of decline” across its range.

Preso said the decline of whitebark had just begun when USFWS proposed delisting the Yellowstone grizzlies. Green islands on mountaintops turned red, then gray, and he said the government hadn’t examined the effect that change would have on the bears.

That became one of the key arguments in the suit, and a federal district judge agreed with Preso in 2009. The bears went back on the list.

After that, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team was tasked with studying the effect of the whitebark pine decline on the bears. The team now has six years of data on the trees and how bears are responding. They also know a lot more about what a bear’s diet actually looks like, something that has impressed onlookers.

“It’s provided a much better picture than anyone had before,” said Scott Christensen, the director of conservation at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Researchers and others like to say that grizzly bears are “opportunistic omnivores,” meaning they eat whatever they can find, from moths to pine cones to elk calves. Van Manen said they’ve documented more than 250 different foods that grizzlies eat — depending on the time of year and how available it is.

With the decline in whitebark pine, reseaarchers found that bears that relied on the seeds had been choosing to eat something else instead.

“Bears already responded by switching to more animal matter,” van Manen said.

He added that the diet change hasn’t changed bears’ body weights, one of their main concerns. But some point to a bigger consequence of relying more on meat.

Bonnie Rice, of the Sierra Club, said that the bear’s move from whitebark pine to meat leads to more bears being killed. A grizzly bear relying on meat is more likely to eat livestock or elk instead, or even their own young. Relying on livestock or game animals puts them in situations where they might end up in human conflicts, which can lead to the bears being killed by wildlife managers. 2015 has been a big year for bears dying.

The latest IGBST count said 59 bears died so far this year, either by human or natural causes. That’s more than twice the number killed in either 2013 or 2014. Other years since 2009 have approached that total, but 59 is the most kills the IGBST has counted since.

Researchers have come up with mortality limits that they say can keep the numbers stable if the states follow them. But Rice would rather see no mortality.

“Any kind of even small mortality of females can have a very large effect on the population,” Rice said. She added that the Sierra Club is opposed to delisting, saying this isn’t the right time because the bears face too many threats.

Rice is also concerned that this year’s bear count, down about 5 percent from 2014, comes after years of the population remaining relatively flat.

The government biologists say there are already too many bears in the Yellowstone region.

“There is a limit to the number of how many animals in a population constrained habitat,” van Manen said. He said the habitat is constrained by social tolerance in the states surrounding the park. They’re only allowed to go so far. He likes to compare it to a sardine can — only so many sardines fit inside.

Rice, and some others in the environmental community, reject that comparison. There is more public land for the bears to roam on, she said, if only the states would let them.

“There’s a bigger sardine can out there,” Rice said.

Still USFWS and the states appear bent on delisting the bears. They feel the data on whitebark pine and population levels are lined up and that they can defend it. All that’s left is working with the states to figure out how to manage the grizzlies in the post-delisting world. Like a boxer who was just knocked out, the government appears ready for another fight.

Wildlife managers in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana are probably more eager than anyone to see a delisting proposal come forward.

In the letter to Ashe in August, the directors of the three states’ wildlife agencies flashed frustration with how long they’ve been waiting.

“States and communities have little incentive to support species recovery if success does not end ESA constraints and return species to state management,” the letter said.

A letter USFWS director Ashe sent to them in September seems to indicate they agree on a few things. The letter, which first appeared on WyoFile early this month, said the states had agreed to a 19,279-square-mile monitoring area — including Yellowstone National Park and parts of all three states — where the killing of bears will be capped based on how many are out there.

The letter also said they have agreed to try for a population of about 674 bears, the average of the IGBST population estimates between 2002 and 2014. At that level, 7.6 percent of adult females and 15 percent of adult males could be killed. If the population exceeds that, the percentages increase. Below 674, the percentages decrease. When population counts dip below 600, “no discretionary mortality would be allowed unless necessary to address human safety issues.”

All of that and more, the USFWS hopes, will be published in the conservation strategy that is attached to a delisting rule. The states have been working on a joint document to define how they are going to manage bears after delisting.

“We want the delisting mainly to have more management flexibility,” said Ken McDonald, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife division administrator.

Part of that means hunting. McDonald said hunting won’t be the biggest component of Montana’s plan to manage the bears, but it will be part of it.

He said he hoped hunting would eliminate some of the management kills and teach the bears to stay away from high conflict areas.

“It’s just more of a tool to help manage the bears,” McDonald said.

The other states have an interest in having hunting seasons, too, but director Ashe has told them that the hunting seasons shouldn’t allow mortality limits to be exceeded. And it seems they’ve agreed to that, but there’s another wrinkle in Ashe’s September letter.

Ashe wrote that outside of the 19,279-square-mile monitoring area, the states won’t be subject to the mortality limits, meaning there’s a possibility they could do whatever they want. How the states respond to that won’t be known until there’s an actual delisting proposal out for the public to view with whatever outrage or pleasure they might have.

One thing that most everyone agrees on with grizzly bears is connectivity. The westward migration of people separated the Rocky Mountain population of grizzly bears. The room to roam they once had disappeared, so they holed up in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone area.

The Yellowstone bears live on something of a genetic island. Each of the other active populations can intermingle with populations on the Canadian border.

Intermingling introduces new genes to the population, something important for genetic diversity and long-term sustainability for grizzly populations. This puts Yellowstone bears in a tough spot. No new genes are coming in.

Grizzly sightings have been recorded in places farther north and west of the Greater Yellowstone area, getting ever closer to the Northern Continental Divide population, those bears in and around Glacier National Park.

“We’ve come close,” Servheen said. “I think we’re making great progress, but it’s a gradual process. We can’t really make them go anywhere.”

Since it’s such a gradual process, that’s one thing that won’t be solved in any delisting proposal. Van Manen said it wasn’t the most crucial thing for the bears, because they are already above a certain population threshold for genetic diversity. But it’s still a long-term goal shared by many, one that would bring grizzlies a little closer to their original range.

But for now, the forthcoming delisting proposal is the event on everyone’s minds. Battle lines will be drawn in a familiar way — those who want to see the bears delisted, and those who don’t.

Rice and the Sierra Club already know where they stand. It’s not the right time, they say.

“These bears are facing too many threats to remove those protections now,” Rice said.

Others take more of a wait-and-see approach.

“We want to make sure that any delisting rule that’s contemplated adequately protects a stable grizzly bear population,” said Scott Christensen of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He added that their top concerns were protecting core habitat, reducing human conflict and ensuring they are managed as one population, not three separate state populations.

Preso, the Earth Justice attorney, said they haven’t made any decisions for or against the delisting. He has questions, especially on the bear’s change to a meat-based diet since the decline of the whitebark pine and this year’s population decrease.

“What are the likely long-term consequences of reliance on a meat-based food source … and how secure is this population going forward from a prolonged decline?” Preso said.

An Oregon native, Preso practiced law in Washington, D.C., before coming to work for Earth Justice in 2000. Work in D.C. was fun, lucrative, intellectually rewarding, but there were reasons he didn’t want to stay there forever.

In his office recently, he pulled two maps from a shelf. One was of the world, the other of the lower 48. Each was shaded using different metrics for the scope of human development. Shading meant humans had been there, built roads, civilizations. White spaces represented areas that remained relatively undisturbed, wild.

The Yellowstone area, where all these grizzlies live, was one of the whitest spaces.

“What we have in our backyards here is a really rare resource. Not just in the lower 48, but on the entire planet,” he said. “I think future generations will be really happy for the investment that people made in trying to keep this place as special as it is.”