The Only Way to Save Grizzlies: Connect Their Habitats

Grizzly. Photo: National Park Service.

Linkages, biological corridors, demographic connectivity or intervening areas. These are the lands outside and between the Grizzly Bear Recovery Areas in the Northern Rockies. Over the past 20 years grizzly bears have begun to recolonize this historic habitat, increasing the possibilities of linking genetically isolated populations and reestablishing a breeding population in the vast Bitterroot ecosystem.

Dr. Fred Allendorf, one of the world’s leading geneticists says that protecting these linkages is the only way to achieve grizzly bear recovery and reduce the risk of extinction to an acceptable level. In fact, Demographic Connectivity Areas (DCA) were designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Conservation Strategy for Grizzly Bears. The purpose of the Ninemile DCA outside of Missoula is to provide genetic and demographic linkage between the NCDE, Cabinet-Yaak and Bitterroot Recovery Areas by providing for “continual occupancy” by female/cub groups. That’s where the scientific agreement ends and the management games begin.

The Forest Service wrote the habitat standards for the Conservation Strategy and wrote themselves a sweet deal. They started with misinterpreting scientific results to allow excessive road densities, then walked away from previous commitments to reclaim roads, weakened the definitions of secure core habitat and inserted a myriad of exceptions, exemptions and delays that render compliance with the standards meaningless.

A team of bear biologists in Canada found that to sustain grizzly bear populations open road density should be 1 mile per square mile or less and secure core areas at least 2500 acres in size away from roads should comprise at least 60% of a management unit. The DCAs allow open road density of 2 miles per square mile, twice that identified by the Canadian team. A report I co-authored on road density in the Ninemile DCA shows even this inadequate standard is exceeded across 78% of the area and female/cub survival may currently be reduced to 50% or less. Just 12.8% of the Ninemile meets the secure core benchmark.

Rather than remedy this situation the Forest Service has turned to additional gimmickry. Both the approved Soldier-Butler and recent Rennick-Stark Projects in the Ninemile DCA added dozens of miles of non-system roads to the road system, then proposed closing them to provide “impact mitigation” for the new permanent open roads constructed. New roads are not mitigated by closing unmaintained dilapidated routes that are often no more than overgrown trails.

This blanket prescription of 2 miles of open road per square mile is bad land management, not just for grizzly bears, but for fish and wildlife more generally. Legendary Forest Service elk biologist Dr. L. Jack Lyon found at this density, elk habitat effectiveness is just 60%. Native bull trout and cutthroat trout are susceptible to fine sediments generated by roads and they provide access for poaching. Most remaining strongholds are in roadless or low road density watersheds.

Linkages are on primarily federal and state lands. Where these cross private lands, standards are mostly voluntary and rely on conservation easements and best livestock husbandry practices to reduce conflicts. But on public lands there is a balance between maintaining reasonable access to our public lands and protection of public resources including threatened and sensitive fish and wildlife species and water quality. That balance has been grossly exceeded in the Ninemile DCA and on other public lands.

The enormous footprint of the Forest Service road system must be reduced before adding new roads. Adequate protection of linkages is absolutely essential to regional grizzly bear recovery and at least the possibility of eventual delisting. The second cannot happen without the first. Our management agencies must put first things first.

Mike Bader is an independent consultant to the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force in Missoula, Montana. He helped formulate the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act and testified before the U.S. Congress in support of it. He has been writing about land and wildlife management issues in the Western states since the 1980s.