The Future of Grizzly Bear Recovery in the Northern Rockies

Grizzly. Photo: Steve Hillebrand/USFWS.

Federal and state officials under the auspices of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) will soon be holding their winter meetings in Missoula and Bozeman (see They have their hands full. Overly focused on delisting of grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide (NCDE) and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems, hopefully the IGBC will put the rose-colored glasses aside and consider the re-emergent issues of habitat loss, rapidly increasing recreation use and regressive state wildlife management.

The state fish and wildlife commissions in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have succumbed to anti-predator hysteria and have authorized unsporting and unsustainable killing of wolves that also threatens harm and death to grizzly bears. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) prohibits taking of listed species. Take means “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Grizzly bears caught in traps are losing claws, toes and feet and will be killed by the anti-wolf regulations that also threaten lynx, wolverine and many other species.

Under the ESA, to delist a species there must be adequate regulatory mechanisms in place. Current state wildlife management regulations are worlds away from adequate and the federal government has its own problems.

For example, the Flathead National Forest abandoned road management rules that helped the NCDE grizzly population grow and is surrendering ground that was gained. And the Flathead is abusing the Special Use Permit provision that allows businesses to operate on public National Forests. Now, they are apparently in support of, and perhaps complicit in expanding the rustic and historic Holland Lake Lodge within the NCDE Grizzly Bear Recovery Area into an upscale four-season resort. This would result in dramatic increases in visitor use and an expanded impact footprint across a wide area of public lands and could set future precedent. This should cause alarm within the IGBC. The Flathead Supervisor, who has presided over the Holland Lake fiasco and the backtracking on roads in grizzly habitat, is the chair of the IGBC’s NCDE subcommittee in what appears to be a conflict of interest.

The 1975 ESA listing cited isolation as a chief factor threatening the continued existence of the grizzly bear. Population numbers in the NCDE and Yellowstone areas have substantially increased yet remain genetically isolated from each other and are at population levels that are too low to be viable over the long term. Linking these populations into a collection of populations, or a meta-population, would maintain and enhance genetic diversity and is absolutely necessary to achieve long term recovery.

The State of Idaho and the Bitterroot National Forest in western Montana are reluctant to admit that grizzly bears have arrived in the Greater Bitterroot Ecosystem. An obstacle to connectivity are U.S. Forest Service roadbuilding and logging projects comprising tens of thousands of acres within key habitat connectivity areas.

Add it all up. In addition to the impacts of climate change, there are serious long-term threats to grizzly bear habitat, new sources of illegal taking, inadequate regulatory mechanisms and continued genetic isolation.

Grizzly bears don’t need a paper victory, they need the increasing threats to their existence mitigated. At this point in time, delisting grizzly bears in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming and subjecting them to state management would lead to the same senseless management we are seeing with wolves and we can watch nearly 50 years of progress restoring grizzly bears to their historic habitat go down the drain, along with our image. But you’ll be able to stay at a luxury resort on public lands at the expense of the native wildlife, if you can afford it.

Mike Bader is an independent consultant in Missoula, Montana with nearly 40 years of experience in land management and species protection. In his early career he was a seasonal ranger in Yellowstone involved in grizzly bear management and research. He has published several papers on grizzly bears and is the co-author of a recent paper on grizzly bear denning and demographic connectivity that has been accepted for publication in a scientific journal.