The grizzly bears of the Northern Rockies are part of a population once numbering in the tens of thousands. Legal protection has prevented total extinction, yet the great bear remains confined to less than 2 percent of its historic range.
Politics are driving efforts to strip away the net that prevented extinction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies are working feverishly to remove Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for grizzly bears in the Glacier-Bob Marshall region. Interagency Grizzly Bear Subcommittee Chair Jim Williams said, “We’re really in a hurry to get this done.” This opens the door to increased development and potential trophy hunting.
Politicians including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are driving the extinction train while waving the banner of success. This rush to judgment violates key scientific principles, common sense and the law. Delisting would unleash a chain reaction of negative consequences for bears and other wildlife benefiting from grizzly habitat protection. Key goals remain unachieved and key questions remain unanswered.
Grizzly bears were listed under the ESA in 1975 as one species in the contiguous states. As the science of conservation biology emerged, scientists called for linkage of the five isolated Northern Rockies subpopulations through occupation of designated and protected suitable habitats by male and female bears. The government’s 1993 recovery plan identified this need, yet this key recovery goal remains unachieved and the government seems content to arbitrarily delist the subpopulations one by one, dooming regional connectivity.
A significant factor in whether a species can survive and thrive without the ESA safety net is the presence or absence of adequate regulatory mechanisms. Courts ruled the agencies must develop habitat-based recovery criteria for grizzly bears. This requirement has yet to be fulfilled or subjected to independent scientific peer review.
Moreover, the government’s draft conservation strategy points toward weaker mechanisms: “Land managers can afford to relax their level of caution.” And it makes the outlandish claim the population in the Glacier-Bob region can be reduced by more than 200 and still be considered “stable.”
Following suit, the Flathead National Forest appears ready to abandon the court-required Amendment 19 habitat strategy and replace it with weaker standards. Other national and state forests also plan increased levels of resource extraction and roads. Consider that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has no jurisdiction over habitat on federal lands, which comprise the bulk of grizzly core areas and linkages.
There’s no assessment of food resources or the potential effects climate change will have. No accounting for increasing human housing development and infrastructure. Visitation to our parks and wildernesses are at record levels and new recreational activities such as mountain biking have spread into roadless areas, increasing conflicts and mortality. But the caution light remains off for the bureaucrats.
The Northern Rockies has undertaken a tremendous wildlife restoration and we have virtually the full suite of native species. It’s what separates us as the premier wildlife-wildland region and why millions visit each year. Grizzlies are gaining a tentative foothold in historic habitat between the Glacier-Bob Marshall, Yellowstone and Selway-Bitterroot. People are becoming more bear-smart and innovative engineers are designing wildlife highway crossings.
At the cusp of regional progress and possibility, grizzly bear delisting would bring it all crashing down. A more abominable end to our remarkable regional wildlife restoration story cannot be imagined.
To the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee: the silent majority is emerging. Delisting is opposed by many Native Americans, scientists, big-game hunters and more. The great bear belongs to the land, and to all of us and we want the grizzly to flourish for generations to come.