Backtracking on Grizzly Bear Recovery

Grizzly. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy[1] is described as a “post-delisting management plan” but has already been in effect since 2018 while the grizzly bear is still listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Conservation Strategy is predicated on maintaining conditions within the Primary Conservation Area (formerly Recovery Area) as they were in 2011 yet a host of post-2011 documents and decisions authorize departures from 2011 conditions. The NCDE Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy, the Revised Flathead National Forest Plan[2] and the Four Forest Plan Amendments for NCDE National Forests[3] all lowered the bar on habitat protection and reneged on previous commitments and representations.

These include:

+ abandonment of Amendment 19 to the Flathead National Forest Plan[4] and a commitment to obliterate another 500 miles of roads in grizzly bear and bull trout habitat. While only 3.2 miles of road were constructed in grizzly habitat under Amendment 19 between 1996 and 2010, proposed new projects under the Revised Forest Plan include the Mid-Swan (31.9 road miles), Bug Creek (13.3 miles), Frozen Moose (13 miles), Lake Five (4.9 miles) and Spotted Bear Mountain (3.4 miles) for a total of 66.5 miles of road construction.[5] The Flathead National Forest has increased the amount of timber sales with many miles of new and reconstructed roads which had previously been decommissioned under Amendment 19 but now will be retained in “storage” for future projects.

+ allowing one new developed site or expansion of an existing site every ten years in each Bear Management Unit inside the Primary Conservation Area (Recovery Area) now known as the “1 in 10” rule.

+ dropping high-use non-motorized trails from secure core calculations which pads secure core totals beyond the reality. Mountain bikes in roadless areas, large party pack trains and hunting camps in Wilderness and so forth all displace grizzly bears from productive habitats. For example, the Revised Flathead Forest Plan allows parties of 15 people and up to 35 stock in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. There is solid science on displacement of grizzly bears in Wilderness and National Park settings.

+ allowing widespread incursions into grizzly bear habitat by mountain bikes[6] including vast new trail networks and allowing foot races[7] through grizzly habitat. There has been an increase of Special Use Permits issued for mountain biking, ATV, UTV guiding in summer and snowmobile guiding in the winter, livery services and more. Most have been issued using Categorical Exclusions without cumulative effects analysis. These increases are another departure from 2011 conditions.

+ allowing unlimited miles of non-motorized trails to be constructed with no trail density standard-or 2011 baseline parameter-to limit them.

+ allowing an unlimited mileage of roads by not including roads with the entrance simply rendered “impassible” to motor vehicles in Total Motorized Route Density (TMRD) calculations. This was not allowed under Amendment 19, which required that roads had to be reclaimed and no longer function as roads or trails whether motorized or non-motorized in order to be omitted from TMRD calculations.

+ replacement of the Recovery Area and Management Situation system of protecting grizzly bear habitat with “Primary Conservation Area” and “Zone 1, 2 and 3.”

Under the Management Situation (MS) approach, the Recovery Area was MS-1, and the area around the Recovery Area similar to the present Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA) but without the two Demographic Connectivity Areas was MS-2 and everything else was MS-3.

In MS-1, all land use and management conflicts were to be resolved in favor of the grizzly bear, period. For example, if the conflict/non-conflict analysis was a coin toss or a jump ball, the possession arrow always went to the grizzly. In MS-2 conflicts between management and grizzlies could be resolved in favor of the grizzly but not necessarily resolved in favor of the grizzly. In MS-3, grizzlies were not welcome and management conflicts were not resolved in favor of the grizzly.

A petition and subsequent 1993 lawsuit sought to compel the USFWS to designate critical habitat for grizzly bears. The bear fell into a gray area because the 1978 Amendments to the ESA stated that for species listed prior to 1978, critical habitat was not required to be designated but it was also not precluded.

While the USFWS is not required to designate critical habitat for species listed prior to 1978, it retains the legal authority to do so. In defense of its decision not to designate critical habitat for the grizzly bear the USFWS asserted its Recovery Area and habitat management approach was comparable to that of critical habitat and would protect a larger area than a critical habitat designation. The Court accepted this defense.[8] Comparable, as defined by Oxford Dictionary means: 1. “similar;” 1.1 “of equivalent quality.”

The reason this is important is that we have been assured that even if delisted, management within the PCA or the old MS-1, would remain the same. This is why grizzly bear scientists Dr. Chris Servheen, Dr. John Waller and others are speaking out because the “1 in 10” rule of the Conservation Strategy violates this and has only recently come to public light through the proposed expansion of Holland Lake Lodge (within the PCA) into a luxury four-season resort. This proposal would at least triple overnight visitor capacity while also increasing day use through partnerships with commercial guides and outfitters and expanding both overnight and day use into winter which may cause disturbance to grizzly bear denning habitat. It would also nearly double the acreage covered by the current lodge permit area.

However, the USFWS has been aware of this inadequate regulatory mechanism for nearly 6 years because they received comments from 16 organizations and scientists in January 2018 on Habitat-Based Recovery Criteria[9] which included the following referring to grizzly bear researcher Dr. Bruce McLellan’s peer review of the Conservation Strategy conducted on behalf of the USFWS:

As Reviewer McLellan (2017) noted, the allowance for one new campground or expansion every ten years in each Bear Management Unit without consultation is alarming and does not maintain the 2011 baseline. With 23 BMUs, there could be 23 new or expanded campgrounds within 10 years, and after 50 there could be more than 100 new or expanded campgrounds constructed, along with the ancillary infrastructure. This would greatly increase the risks of habituation, management conflict and mortality to grizzly bears. This level of agency discretion is a poor substitute for the ESA Section 7 consultation requirements and identification of critical habitat.

The Service wants to have it both ways. It signed off on the Revised Flathead National Forest Plan in an arbitrary fashion (Biological Opinion), knowing that without the Amendment 19 status quo as of 2011, the HBRC 2011 baseline would be immediately exceeded. The HBRC clearly states the new standards “are less restrictive than Amendment 19.”

The Forest Service and particularly the Flathead National Forest has sought to exploit the “1 in 10” rule. It previously proposed expanding a two-site campground at Bunker Creek[10] in the Spotted Bear area that currently has two grills and a vault toilet and the site is primarily used by people in campers. This site would have been upgraded into modern cabins with electricity and running water and a new horse corral added. This was proposed under a Categorical Exclusion from a realistic and comprehensive environmental impact review under the National Environmental Policy Act. A Categorical Exclusion is basically a checklist without robust environmental analysis. A Freedom of Information Act Request[11] revealed a plan for as many as 29 new cabins on the Spotted Bear Ranger District alone, all with Categorical Exclusions. This was followed by the proposed expansion of Holland Lake Lodge into a four-season resort which the Forest Service said it intended to analyze using a Categorical Exclusion.[12]


USFWS told a federal court that the Recovery Area was comparable and equivalent to critical habitat. They told the American people that the PCA would be managed the same as the Recovery Zone. The Forest Service says that secure core has increased in the NCDE.

In summary, the notion that conditions in the NCDE are the same as in 2011 are a charade. In fact, conditions on the ground in the NCDE are moving inexorably away from 2011. The number of commitments and agreements which have been reneged on is lengthy and with substantive impacts on grizzly bear survival and recovery and the list provided here is not all-inclusive.

If this is what commitment means while the grizzly bear is a listed species, one can only imagine what post-delisting commitments would amount to. Less than today, that appears certain.


[1] US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2018. NCDE Subcommittee. Conservation Strategy for the Grizzly Bear in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

[2] Federal Register Vol. 83, No. 247 (2018). Final Record of Decisions for the Flathead National Forest Land Management Plan and Forest Plan Amendments for the Kootenai, Helena-Lewis and Clark, and Lolo National Forests.

[3] US Forest Service. 2018. Forest Plan Amendments to Incorporate Habitat Management Direction for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Population. Kalispell, MT. 148 p.

[4] Amendment 19 to the Flathead National Forest Plan 1995.

[5] See

[6] Hellroaring Basin Decision Notice,

[7] Decision Notice,

[8] Fund for Animals v. Babbitt 903 F. Supp. at 117.

[9] Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force et al. 2018. Comments on Habitat-Based Recovery Criteria for the NCDE.

[10] Bunker Creek Cabin Scoping

[11] FOIA from National Parks and Conservation Association and Montana Wilderness Association to Flathead National Forest.

[12] Scoping Notice for Holland Lake Lodge Facility Expansion, Flathead National Forest. September 1, 2022.

Mike Bader is an independent consultant and grizzly bear habitat researcher. Keith Hammer is chair of the Swan View Coalition. Arlene Montgomery is program director of Friends of the Wild Swan.