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Environment & Science

Grizzly Bears Will Retain Threatened Species Protections

A grizzly bear mother and cub in Yellowstone Park.
A grizzly bear mother and cub in Yellowstone Park.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wednesday recommended continued federal protections for grizzlies in the continental U.S. Federal officials say the bears still face threats from human population growth and habitat loss. But the report doesn't rule out removing protections for bears in specific regions in the future.

The recommendation released in a 5-year review said grizzly bears in the lower 48 states should retain threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.

<--break->The new document from federal wildlife officials says grizzlies are still vulnerable to some of the same forces as when they first received Endangered Species Act protection in 1975. At that time there were about 700 to 800 of the bruins in the continental U.S.

"Two big threats were human-caused mortality and habitat loss," says Hilary Cooley, grizzly bear recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "And those are still the same ones ongoing today, it’s just that in certain areas we’ve done a really good job minimizing those."

Today, the federal government estimates a total of nearly 2,000 grizzlies live in the lower 48 states.

The recommendation in the review looks at grizzlies as a whole, but wildlife managers often look at the bears’ population in six separate federally designated recovery zones. All or part of four of those areas are in Montana.

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The report says there are no resident bears in the Bitterroot or North Cascade ecosystems, and there are potentially vulnerable populations in the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems. The two largest populations are in the Greater Yellowstone area and the region in and around Glacier National Park, called the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem or NCDE.

Jodi Bush is FWS Montana Project Team Leader.

"We do continue to think that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the NCDE are biologically recovered," Bush says.

Over the last 15 years, the federal government has twice tried to remove Endangered Species Act protections from Yellowstone-area bears. Both of those attempts were overturned in court.

Bush said the Biden administration hasn’t yet given direction on if or how to proceed with delisting any individual population of the bears.

"That’s not to say that it won’t happen or that it will happen. It’s just that we have a new administration who are trying to get their hands around all things grizzly bear, and no decisions have been made at this time."

Andrea Zaccardi is a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the federal government in 2019 asking wildlife officials for updated analysis and management plans for grizzlies. Zaccardi said 5-year status reviews are required for all species listed under the Endangered Species Act. The last one for grizzlies came out a decade ago. 

Within six months of that suit a federal judge ordered the USFWS to publish the overdue review by March 2021. That’s the document the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just released. 

"Overall, while we’re happy to see there was no direct recommendation to delist grizzly bears in Yellowstone or Glacier, we were really hoping to see more about updating the recovery plan and considering areas for reintroduction," Zaccardi says.

Several of Montana’s top political figures have for years pushed the federal government to remove Endangered Species Act protections for grizzlies. 

Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale both released statements against the Fish and Wildlife Service’s recommendation, claiming the state can do a better job managing the animals than the federal government. Daines recently introduced legislation in the Senate that would delist Yellowstone-area bears. Rosendale is co-sponsor on a similar bill in the House.

As a House rep, Gov. Greg Gianforte co-sponsored nearly identical legislation. Following the release of the wildlife agency’s report, Gianforte said he would have liked to see a different recommendation come out of the 5-year review.

"Montana is perfectly able to manage this population if we had the control to do it. Until the delisting occurs, that’s not possible."

While the recommendations from the federal government signal delisting is unlikely in the immediate future, the Montana Legislature is debating multiple bills that could directly affect how grizzlies are handled at a local level. 

Senate Bill 337 would prevent any grizzly that gets into a conflict outside of a recovery zone from being relocated. Senate Bill 98 would make it legal under state law to kill one of the bears if it’s threatening or attacking livestock. That bill is on its way to Gianforte’s desk.

Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley said federal law prohibits killing grizzlies except in a defense-of-life situation. But there are alternatives to keep bears away from property.

"We want people to know that its okay to try to move bears away if you're not gonna be injuring the bear — things like making a bunch of noise," she said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Montana Project Team Leader Jodi Bush said the agency can’t comment specifically on legislation that’s not yet passed.
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