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Revamping Grizzly Bear Recovery

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The enthusiasm expressed for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposed grizzly bear advisory council promises to enhance coexistence efforts at a time when, with each new year, grizzly bear deaths shatter records. But Montana’s efforts must be nested within a larger national framework of grizzly bear recovery.

The grizzly is an iconic species of global concern. Families from across America and the world are flocking to Yellowstone and Glacier hoping to see a grizzly bear. Montana recognizes the public’s passion for grizzlies and other wildlife — and their economic contribution to numerous communities — evident in widespread promotion of our state animal.

In giving grizzly bears Endangered Species Act protections, the federal government long ago recognized that state management was inadequate. The Fish and Wildlife Service has played a vital role since 1975 in reversing the decline of grizzly bear populations in the Northern Rockies, a decline states had perpetuated with trophy hunts. By banning hunting, setting high fines to deter poaching, and establishing tough regulations to keep human foods away from bears, the FWS, along with the Forest Service, National Park Service and states, has improved the health of Montana’s grizzlies.

Progress has been slow. Low reproductive rates exacerbate the continued excessive rates at which grizzlies die. Yellowstone and Glacier bear populations have flat-lined during the last 15 years and could even be in decline — contrary to inflated claims of government biologists. States can continue to make a positive difference, but only under oversight by a federal government charged with protecting the interests of all Americans.

Twenty years ago, governors of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming set up a “round table” process similar to the current advisory council. Unfortunately, it proved to be little more than a vehicle for promoting premature delisting and limiting grizzlies to isolated island ecosystems — despite overwhelming scientific evidence that lasting recovery can only be achieved by reconnecting grizzly bear ecosystems. In the aftermath, Montana undertook a costly and unsuccessful fight to grab power from the federal government, reduce grizzly populations and disenfranchise the national public.

The federal government should not tolerate a repeat of this cynical exercise. Grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide, Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak are still federally protected as are Yellowstone grizzlies following last fall’s court order. The FWS continues to be accountable for promoting meaningful recovery and for giving all Americans a voice in the process.

But the Fish and Wildlife Service  has been abdicating its responsibility, wasting time and taxpayer dollars challenging the relisting ruling, which even Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley says is a lost cause. The agency has also been also looking the other way as grizzly bear deaths mount, despite maintaining that most of these deaths were avoidable. Other than keeping a rote tally, the agency has no records during the last two years detailing how a staggering 131 grizzlies died in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.

FWS must provide better oversight of the states, including Montana’s new council. Together, federal and state stakeholders can improve coexistence efforts. We have learned a lot about how to prevent conflicts, with the help of bear pepper spray, bear-proof garbage bins, and electric fences around beehives and chicken coops. Much can be gleaned from successful coexistence work in the Madison and Blackfoot Valleys to improve practices elsewhere.

Climate warming and massive wildfires have already clobbered native bear foods, forcing bears to forage more widely and boosting human conflicts. Montana’s Grizzly Bear Council could help navigate the new reality, while allowing more bears to live in the ample suitable habitat we still have.

People outside Montana cannot and should not be ignored. During the last 20 years, citizens from around our country have overwhelmingly and consistently supported stronger protections for grizzlies through comments on more than a dozen federal and state decisions. Nearly 1 million people commented on the 2016 draft rule to remove ESA protections for Yellowstone’s grizzlies. More than 99.99% supported stronger, not weaker, protections. They deserve a seat at the table.

Meaningful recovery of grizzlies can only be achieved through a combination of local, state and national efforts. With 150 applicants for 15 seats on the Grizzly Bear Council, Montanans have shown a keen interest in constructive progress. The challenge now is to frame that work within an effective and coordinated national effort. The FWS must wake up and engage — on behalf of all of us.

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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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