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Real Grizzly Bear Recovery

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In the Dec. 12 Missoulian (“Sound grizzly bear management”) Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Jeff Hagener made the claim that grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem were recovered and it was time to delist them from Endangered Species Act protections and return them to state management.

Hagener made his case based upon the following claims:

+ Populations in both areas have rebounded significantly in both ecosystems – 700 in the GYE, and nearly 1,000 in the NCDE – making this one of the greatest conservation success stories.

+ Both ecosystems have reached all their required recovery goals under the ESA.

+ The ESA allows grizzlies to be recovered/delisted one ecosystem or distinct population segment at a time.

+ FWP is committed to management plans that will keep the populations healthy while allowing us more “flexibility” in bear management.

With the exception of the first statement, the rest is the same federal/state “spin control” the agencies have been trying to sell the public for decades – long on politics, but short on science. The reality is quite different:

1/ Independent scientists – those not drinking the agency Kool-Aid – have long agreed that a minimum population of 2,500-3,000 bears will be needed spanning all six recovery areas with habitat linkages between them. We currently have just 1,800 grizzlies, with 95 percent concentrated in the GYE and NCDE, no science-based plans to link the populations, and no active recovery efforts in two of the largest ecosystems. The ESA requires use of the “best available scientific and commercial data,” not the fabricated recovery goals of the 1993 Recovery Plan, or the politically driven goals of recent “conservation” strategies.

2/ Since none of the recovery areas can hold a recovered population of 2,500-3,000 by itself, it is by definition not biologically possible to recover/delist one ecosystem or DPS at a time, and FWP is well aware that federal courts have already stated as much.

3/ Before delisting can take place, the ESA requires that threats to habitat or range must be alleviated; excessive mortalities must be reduced to biologically sustainable levels; and adequate regulatory mechanisms must be in place to maintain recovery post-delisting.

Yet immediately upon delisting, large areas of occupied habitat will see significant reductions in protection; mortalities – already excessive in the GYE – will be allowed to increase; and protective regulations will be dramatically weakened – all in violation of ESA delisting criteria, as well as common sense.

4/ Given the above, the FWP commitment to “management plans that will keep the populations healthy” simply doesn’t pass the straight-face test. In reality, the state has been chomping at the bit to take back grizzly management from the feds so they can get back to hunting the great bear and appeasing grizzly opponents. In fact, in Greater Yellowstone, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have already divided up the bear body count that each will receive post-delisting. So much for following the science and protecting Montana’s iconic state animal.

Brian Peck is an independent wildlife consultant who lives in Columbia Falls.

This column originally appeared in the Missoulian.

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