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The Future of the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzlies

Last week, the beleaguered grizzlies in the Cabinet Yaak ecosystem got a potentially lifesaving break from Federal District Court Judge Dana Christiansen. Christiansen ordered the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to reverse its 2014 decision to downgrade the population’s status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), from one warranting a designation of “endangered” to the less imperiled rank of “threatened.” (link)  This is the latest in a series of positive rulings over the last two decades for the imperiled grizzlies of the Cabinet Yaak – that so far have all been met with resistance by the federal government. 

Grizzlies in the remote Cabinet Yaak ecosystem in northwest Montana are literally on death’s doorstep, numbering less than 50 grizzlies – less than half of the FWS’ absurdly small recovery goal of 100 bears.  Making matters worse, since this population was listed as threatened in 1975 (along with other grizzlies in the lower-48 states), grizzlies have been functionally split between the northern Yaak region and the southern Cabinet Mountains; there has been no movement of grizzly bears between these isolated segments for many years. The reason? Excessive killing, particularly poaching, and the press of human activity.

The listed status of the population matters. If Cabinet Yaak grizzlies are given the more stringent “endangered” protections, the FWS will have to designate critical habitat for them. One major reason that the population is doing so poorly is habitat degradation. Excessive road networks on the Kootenai Forest, built to cut down the huge trees in this lush landscape, allow easy entry for poachers, who constitute the leading cause of death in this population. By contrast, poaching is not nearly as severe a problem in the two wilderness-based strongholds for grizzlies around Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), centered on Glacier Park.

Christiansen’s Ruling: The Context

In 2014, FWS had downgraded the Cabinet Yaak population from a “warranted, but precluded” endangered status, meaning that the population deserved greater protections, but that FWS could not deal with the problem due to other priorities that it deemed more important. These greater protections had been granted by a judge in 1993 as a result of litigation by conservationists.

To justify its defiance of the judge’s earlier ruling, the FWS relied on a 2010 determination that it used to dodge listing the polar bear as endangered, despite the fact that global warming has been ferociously melting sea ice needed by polar bears to hunt seals. In this case a judge allowed the FWS to interpret “in danger of extinction” as meaning “on the brink of extinction,” with the proviso that this interpretation applied only to the special circumstances of polar bears.

Meanwhile, between 1993 and 2014 threats to Cabinet-Yaak grizzlies from roadbuilding, human settlement, and poaching mounted. The situation is so dire for these bears that the FWS regularly augments the population by bringing in grizzlies from the NCDE population. More on this later.

Nevertheless, the FWS wanted to downgrade the population’s status so that it would not have to make hard decisions that would challenge powerful status quo interests in the logging and mining industries. At the same time, the agency greenlighted a Forest Service plan that instituted weaker standards for managing roads in the Cabinet-Yaak compared to  those applied to grizzly habitat in Greater Yellowstone and the NCDE, both of which support 10-15 times more grizzlies. Stringent management of roads in these better-protected ecosystems is seen as key to the progress made toward population recovery.

Christensen determined that the FWS’ downgrading of protections for the Cabinet-Yaak’s grizzlies was “arbitrary and capricious.” He said: “There is no evidence… to suggest that the agency found that the change in policy was permissible under the Endangered Species Act, believed that the new policy was better than the agencies’ prior interpretations, or otherwise provided a good reason for the change.” (link)

Michael Garrity, Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which brought the case to court, wryly observed that, instead of redoubling efforts to protect and restore habitat and reduce mortalities, the FWS has spent the better part of the last two decades dragging its feet.

Second Positive Court Ruling for Cabinet Yaak Grizzlies in a Year

Judge Christiansen’s ruling is the second in a year in aid of the Cabinet-Yaak’s beleaguered grizzlies. In May, 2016, Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch rocked the grizzly bear world by sentencing a man to six months in federal prison for poaching a threatened grizzly bear in the Cabinet Yaak ecosystem (link).

Although the additional fine of $5,000 was stiff but not unusual for violations of the ESA, jail time is unheard of as a penalty for any imperiled species, let alone grizzly bears. There has never been a louder message to would-be poachers that federal officials are taking their duty to protect endangered species seriously.

The facts of this case showed that the killing was not in self-defense, but rather as a malicious lark. Shaloko Katzer of Mead, Washington followed a grizzly, then shot and killed it in the Yaak Falls campground in July, 2015.

Judge Lynch was unusually clear about his intentions when he addressed Katzer during sentencing, saying: “You went out of your way to kill this bear. But the most important thing is this is going to stop. And, unfortunately, you may be the first example, but the unnecessary killing of these threatened species is going to stop. And you, sentencing you to this is necessary to deter all those individuals who might undertake or engage in the same conduct of I guess what they might consider a sport.” (link)

Lynch and Christensen are not the only judges to have ruled in favor of grizzly bears. In fact, during the last 25 years, Courts have determined on at least 20 occasions that more needs to be done to advance recovery of threatened grizzly bears, which for the last 50 years have remained at a mere 2-3% of their former numbers.

Yet, so often, the FWS would rather do nothing and lose again in court than work to get recovery right, especially in the case of Cabinet Yaak grizzlies. The agency seems to care more about minimizing political risks to its funding and prerogatives, which admittedly are considerable, rather than fulfilling its public trust responsibilities by aggressively recovering a charismatic endangered species for the benefit of all Americans.

And, time may not be on the side of the few surviving bears in the Cabinet Yaak.

Time is Running Out for Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk Grizzlies   

For decades, the FWS’ top priority has been stripping Yellowstone’s grizzlies of their endangered species protections, which happened for the second time in June of this year. Removing protections for grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem is the agency’s next goal; a delisting proposal is expected for the NCDE in 2018.

The FWS’ focus on eviscerating protections for these larger populations has come at the additional expense of grizzlies that are on the ropes — not only in the Cabinet Yaak, but its neighbor to the west in Idaho, the Selkirks.  The Selkirks, a similarly small ecosystem that also straddles the Canadian border, and supports perhaps 50 animals on the US side.

Given the small size of these populations, the slide to extinction could be relatively quick, as these bears are not far from zero now. Grizzlies have extremely low reproduction rates, which makes recovery much more difficult. There are only a handful of reproductive females in each ecosystem, and the loss of even one of these females could be devastating.

It is impossible to overstate the level of threat facing Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak grizzlies.  Sadly, there is no designated Wilderness in the Yaak area, and, the Cabinet Mountains are long and skinny, giving people easy access to even the farthest reaches of these scant wildlands. Only a small portion of the Selkirks is protected Wilderness.

There is no portion of either ecosystem protected by a National Park, which is why you may have never heard of them. That matters, because in Yellowstone, Glacier and, seasonally, Grand Teton Parks, grizzly bears are protected from people with guns. This alone has made a huge difference to recovering grizzly bears.

Both the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk ecosystems are hammered by logging roads.  The Canada side of the ecosystem is pretty beat up too – making bears more or less isolated from larger populations on all sides.

Adding insult to injury, two hard rock mines are poised to hemi-sect the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem. If the Rock Creek Mine is built on the west side of the Cabinets and the Montanore mine on the east, the ability of grizzly bear to travel from the north to the southern third of the bear’s range would be seriously compromised. Even the FWS has admitted that these mines, if built at the same time (which is now proposed), would be the last nails in the coffin for this population. So far, litigation brought by conservation groups (does this sound like a theme?) has forestalled these mines.

As I mentioned earlier, prospects even under the current conditions are so bleak that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has resorted to dumping grizzly bears from the healthier Glacier population into the Cabinet-Yaak to prevent the population from winking out. Still, out of 17 grizzly bears that have been relocated during the last 15 years, only three have been known to contribute genes to the population.

All is not lost, however, for the habitat, with its Pacific maritime influence, is incredibly productive, with berries that Yellowstone grizzly bears could only dream of.  There is hope, if the thugs stop killing bears, as the ESA requires, and if enough habitat is protected.

Uplisting the Cabinet Yaak and Selkirk populations to endangered status and designating critical habitat for these bears could prompt needed restoration and make habitat more secure for grizzlies.  Stiffer penalties and more aggressive prosecution of poaching cases could also reduce malicious killing. Better coexistence practice could reduce conflicts. Proven methods include running electric fence around beehives and chicken coops, and installing bear resistant garbage bins around home sites.

Not doing stupid, harmful stuff would also help enormously.

Now for the Dumbest Idea Ever: New, High-Use Hiking Trail Through the Heart of the Yaak

Just as you think things cannot get worse for Cabinet Yaak grizzlies, the Forest Service has proposed a new high use hiking trail through the heart of the wildest part of the Yaak. The Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail would run 1,200 miles from Glacier National Park to Port Townsend, Washington, tying into the popular Pacific Crest Trail.

As many as 4,000 hikers are expected to blast through the bear-iest habitat in the Yaak – many undoubtedly oblivious to bears as they listen to tunes on headsets, as is the custom on the Pacific Crest Trail. The likelihood of negative consequences is high as hikers displace bears and increase the chance of conflicts with bears.

Local conservationists, including the prolific writer Rick Bass, have suggested an alternative route that avoids this refugium, a measure also supported by preeminent grizzly bear scientist Chuck Jonkel, who passed away last year (link). But, a crazy rider to a 2009 spending bill sponsored by Norm Dicks, former Congressman from Washington, authorized the trail. 

While the Forest Service can still say “no” to the current route, the agency is reluctant to change course. Meanwhile a trail advocacy group, Pacific Northwest Trail Association (PNTA), has been bullying the government to push the process through. “The trail is coming whether you like it or not,” said Jeff Kish of PTNA to Jessie Grossman of the local conservation group Yaak Valley Forest Council in a recent conversation.

Cabinet-Yaak grizzlies need more, not less habitat. This issue is a no brainer: the Forest Service and FWS should simply re-route the trail so as to minimize impacts on grizzlies. But, then, both agencies love to say “yes” to every development proposal that crosses their desk.

It is true, too, that avoiding stupid stuff like the Yaak trail won’t achieve recovery, which entails doubling the size of the population. For that, we need a bigger picture approach.

Yellowstone and Cabinet Yaak, Selkirks Grizzly Bears Need Each Other  

We tend to talk about the Greater Yellowstone, Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirks and Glacier, as if they are separate grizzly bear planets. They aren’t. They simply represent bears in the last bits of land where grizzly bears survived when the FWS got around to listing them in 1975. These ecosystems represented the small remnants of what had been one more or less contiguous grizzly bear population that stretched from the Great Plains to the Pacific coast and south to Mexico.

Despite all the work since 1975 to recover grizzlies, they still constitute only 3% of their former numbers. While scientists say that continued isolation is a serious problem for all these populations, FWS still treats them as separate postage stamps.

Geneticists tell us that Yellowstone bears will be forever at risk genetically if they stay isolated in their current ecological island. Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk grizzly bears cannot stay isolated either if their future is to be ensured. All must be connected to each other and to larger populations in Canada. The government knows this, but it is too darn difficult to talk about such a big vision in such a mean-spirited, anti-science, political climate.

Many experts say that for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears to connect with bears elsewhere, the best route is through the Selway Bitterroot ecosystem north through, yes you guessed it, the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem.  This means that grizzly bears must be recovered in Idaho’s vast Selway Bitterroot ecosystem, which scientists say could support 600 or so grizzlies.

But the lynchpin for recovery is the largest grizzly bear population, centered on Glacier Park, with perhaps 900 or so bears.  Although only four grizzly bears are known to have moved on their own from this ecosystem to the Cabinet-Yaak and stay there, more could do so in the future if habitat is protected and bears are not killed. Grizzlies are also moving south towards Yellowstone, and into the north end of the Selway Bitterroot recovery area. Meanwhile, they are moving east, recolonizing prairie habitat.

Grizzly bears are showing the way to recovery with their paws. From Yellowstone, bears are moving further west along the Centennial Range towards the Selway Bitteroot. Individuals have moved south from the Cabinets as well. Grizzlies, probably from the NCDE, have shown up this summer in the Big Belt Mountains, about 100 miles north of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. They are connecting on their own, if we don’t kill them.

Instead of treating the five remaining grizzly bear populations as isolated islands, the FWS should look at opportunities to achieve durable recovery through expanding secure habitat by restoration and improved co-existence practices. The 1992 recovery plan, which ignored the pressing issue of climate change and gave short shrift to connectivity, is in sore need of revision. This is the place to reimagine recovery and the possibilities of creating a large contiguous population of grizzlies in our northern Rockies.

Instead of dragging their feet until they are sued again and spanked by judges, the FWS and Forest Service should show a little courage and exercise leadership – for the bears and all the rest of us.

Please do what you can to help Cabinet Yaak grizzlies: tell the Forest Service to re-route the Pacific Northwest Trail to avoid the heart of the Yaak. Send an email to mtmcgrath@fs.fed.us, and send a copy to info@yaakvalley.org. The Yaak Valley Forest Council (www.yaakvalley.org) is leading the fight against this idiotic trail. You can help stop the disastrous Rock Creek mine by supporting Rock Creek Alliance (www.rockcreekalliance.org). And the Alliance for the Wild Rockies (www.allianceforthewildrockies.org)  brought the latest uplisting case — stay tuned for more chapters on this drama.    

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

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