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Delisting the Grizzly: a Recipe For More Bear Deaths

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In Yellowstone, the New Year may ring in a grizzly bear hunt for the first time in 40 years. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has announced the release in January of a new proposal to remove endangered species protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Removal of protections is known as “delisting.” Whether or not delisting is appropriate depends in part on the strength and responsiveness of systems to manage grizzly bears after federal protections are stripped.

With the plans that are already in place, we can paint a fairly clear picture of what the bear’s world will look like without the safety net of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That picture looks grim.

After protections are removed, the bear’s fate will be decided by the states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, which will have full authority over management. The FWS will look over the states’ shoulders for the first five years after delisting, but the agency has fiercely maintained that even if problems arise, it will not relist the population.

More Dead Bears

This arrangement is a recipe for disaster because of the states’ devotion to the ethos of domination and death, and because of their related animosity towards large carnivores, which are seen as competitors for big game, the “cash cow” of state game agencies (link). Despite some laudatory language about co-existence with grizzly bears, the state grizzly bear management plans lack any binding commitments to do anything other than hunt bears. There is no safety net for grizzly bears in state plans.

The same is true of the post-delisting Conservation Strategy (CS), which directs how bears and bear habitat will be monitored in parks and on national forest lands. Although the original 2007 CS is being updated, the contents will almost certainly stay much the same. It is a handshake agreement among agencies and, as the FWS admits, the CS cannot compel any agency to do anything (link). Everything is voluntary.

One of the biggest problems is the lack of regulatory controls on grizzly bear mortality once delisting has occurred. With the lowest reproductive rate of any mammal in North America, grizzly bears cannot sustain many deaths, especially among adults. Most grizzlies die because people kill them, so controlling the rates at which we kill these animals is crucial.

In fact, the ESA has been vital to reducing rates of human-caused grizzly bear mortality. Under the ESA, killing grizzly bears is prohibited except in self-defense situations. Hunting is banned. And poachers have been successfully prosecuted under the Act, with some paying hefty fines.

What will happen after ESA protections are removed and grizzly bear mortalities exceed prescribed levels? The post-delisting plans do not compel ANY response. State laws don’t limit but rather promote killing grizzly bears.

The FWS has recently claimed that state-sponsored  hunting of grizzlies could be stopped after delisting if the population was reduced from the current estimated 717 bears to around 600 (link)., But these claims are hardly comforting given that there are no prospective commitments to limit killing from any other cause.  So far, the FWS has not proposed a cap on total mortality that would, at least in theory, lead to meaningful remedial action.

Lost Habitat Protections

After delisting, Wyoming and Idaho plan to prevent grizzly bears from occupying certain parts of the states. In Idaho, bears would not be welcome in southern parts of the Centennial Mountains, a key ecological corridor that could connect the long-isolated Yellowstone population to other grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies. Wyoming’s plan takes aim at bears that wander into unoccupied but suitable habitat in the Wind River and Wyoming Mountains by proposing levels of sport hunting and other removals that would guarantee local extirpation. And Wyoming is expected to further ramp up removals of grizzly bears from the Upper Green River area to appease local politically well-connected ranchers.

Even if the states were inclined to do more for grizzly bears after delisting, they lack most of the relevant authority. According to the federal government, in the Greater Yellowstone, over 40% of habitat currently occupied by grizzlies lies outside the antiquated Primary Conservation Area (PCA).  After delisting, no habitat protections would apply in these extensive areas excluded from the PCA. Moreover, most of this is federally-administered public lands over which the states have no direct control.

And these lands have become increasingly important to grizzly bears that are scrambling to adapt to human-driven losses of key foods: whitebark pine, cutthroat trout, and elk.  Given these changes, Chuck Schwartz, former leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team projected in 2006 that carrying capacity would decline for grizzly bears in the GYE. He stated: “To ensure there is adequate numbers of healthy individuals and hence a healthy population likely will require a larger area than currently defined by the recovery zone (or PCA). Protecting these lands before they are drastically altered by human impacts is important to ensure the long term conservation of the bears (link)”.

Schwartz’s argument for a safety net for vulnerable public lands outside the PCA has yet to be heeded. According to Forest Service documents, more than 75% of occupied national forest lands outside the PCA are open to road building, despite reams of evidence that roads increase grizzly bear mortality by increasing levels of human activity (link).

Political Masters Unleashed

Given the ethos of the states, and the influence of ranchers and hunters, claims that the states would exercise caution after delisting sound facile. The states and the FWS also maintain that the post-delisting system is “adaptive” to changing circumstances, as if this were supposed to be reassuring. Past behaviors would suggest that the states will merely use “adaptive management” as cover for essentially anything they want.

We can predict what will happen without the curbing effects of the ESA as pressure mounts from the politically well-connected few who want to kill more bears. The states are likely to unabashedly react to conflicts not with compassion but with firepower. Grizzly bears should expect anything but a safety net from the states.

Even though the states may be somewhat cautious during the first five years of federal oversight that follows delisting, there is every reason to believe that, over time, state management will reverse the gains made over the last 40 years of endangered species protections.

This is especially likely given the crisis that Yellowstone grizzly bears are facing now. During the past decade we have seen mounting numbers of grizzly bear deaths related to the collapse of important foods and rising conflicts organized around bears compensating by seeking more meat, especially from cows and the remains of hunter-killed elk.  Indeed, this has been a record-breaking year for bear deaths, with 59 grizzly bears known to be dead, and another 30+ more that we don’t know about, but which the government estimates probably happened. This totals over 90 bears, or in excess of 12% of the population. And this with the federal safety net.

Not Enough Money     

Money problems promise to exacerbate the situation. The Conservation Strategy states that $3.7 million will be needed each year to implement post-delisting activities, including monitoring grizzly bear numbers and habitat, and on-going sanitation of human facilities. Yet, funding for agencies such as the Forest Service has been tanking, with support for management of wildlife habitat taking the hardest hit. By contrast, fire management and related extractive uses such as logging now get the lion’s share of funding. The Bridger Teton National Forest budget has declined by 30% (link), and the future is not likely to bring improvements. State wildlife management agencies are in no better shape.

Because the CS stipulates only voluntary compliance, government agencies cannot be required to spend any money for activities needed to sustain the population—much less money that they don’t have. So, we can expect more aging dumpsters that are far from bear-proof, even fewer field personnel (who are endangered species already), and less commitment to nonlethal reductions of grizzly-human conflicts.

Yes, there are many in state and federal agencies who have good intentions when it comes to fostering co-existence between grizzly bears and humans; good intentions that have been expressed in various documents focused on a post-delisting world. But the road to extinction is paved with good intentions.  The ESA requires more.

We Still Need ESA Protections

The adequacy of post-delisting regulations was at the center of the last debate over a previous move by the FWS to delist Yellowstone grizzlies, which they temporarily succeeded in doing during 2007-2008. In fact one of the major reasons that grizzly bears were relisted by court order in 2009 was the fact that all post-delisting conservation measures were voluntary. Yet so far the agencies have changed nothing.

The ESA represents the conscience of the broader public when it comes to grizzly bears and other imperiled species. By contrast, our state wildlife management agencies in the Northern Rockies represent the views of a politically influential minority whose interests focus on extractive uses of the natural world. State wildlife managers do not want to adopt binding restrictions because anything of this sort would put them at odds with their hunter constituency and their politically powerful masters in the energy and agriculture industries.

State wildlife management does not have to be this way. Other states, including Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota, and California, have reformed their wildlife management systems–broadening their financial base beyond hunting and fishing license fees and expanding their constituencies to include more people who appreciate wildlife primarily or even solely for intrinsic reasons. By contrast, the Northern Rockies states remain in the Dark Ages.

Look, for example, at Wyoming’s approach to wolf management. State politicians designated 90% of the state as a free-fire zone within which any and all wolves could be killed at any time, for any reason. Not surprisingly, the FWS signed off on Wyoming’s approach although, fortunately, a federal judge restored federal protections for wolves in 2014.

The ESA is still needed to curb the excesses of state wildlife managers in the Northern Rockies. The ESA is vital to protect, not only grizzly bears and their ecosystems, but also the broader public interest. With mounting threats and more bears dying than ever before, Yellowstone’s grizzlies still need the federal safety net.

Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.

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