In this Sept. 25, 2013 photo, a grizzly bear cub searches for fallen fruit beneath an apple tree a few miles from the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont. (AP Photo, Casper Star-Tribune, Alan Rogers)
MISSOULA, Mont. -- With new research showing grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park are going strong, Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee members unanimously called for ending federal protection of their namesake animal.
“This is not a decision to delist the grizzly,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly recovery coordinator Chris Servheen said after the vote was taken on Wednesday. “It’s a recommendation to write a new rule.”
Higher authorities in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may decide by early January whether to follow the IGBC recommendation, made near the end of a two-day meeting in Missoula.
If the federal government believes Yellowstone grizzly populations are no longer threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a new management rule might be drafted within six months. It would then be published in the Federal Register and receive public comment before a final version is enacted.
Between 629 and 740 grizzly bears live in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which includes parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Federal authorities tried to delist Yellowstone grizzlies in 2007, but U.S. District Judge Don Molloy ruled the science was incomplete on how dependent grizzlies were on whitebark pine nuts as a food source.
Whitebark pine trees produce high-protein seeds in their cones that grizzly bears often use as a fall food source. The tree species has been ravaged by a fungus called blister rust as well as by mountain pine beetles. About 74 percent of the mature, cone-producing whitebark stands are dead in the Yellowstone area.
Opponents of the 2007 delisting plan argued in court that the FWS didn’t account for the loss of whitebark nuts when determining that Yellowstone grizzlies were strong enough to go under state management. But a new study released on Wednesday refuted those claims.
Instead, the grizzly’s omnivorous eating habits allow it to adapt to changing food sources without changing its home range size, U.S. Geological Survey researcher Frank van Manen said. While whitebark nuts and cutthroat trout have faded from the food supply, the bears have found other things on which to thrive.
Van Manen said the Yellowstone grizzly population grew 4 percent to 7 percent between 1983 and 2001, but has leveled off to between .3 percent and 2.2 percent in the past decade.
That flattening trend line reflects two things, van Manen said. First, the area appears to have reached its carrying capacity for grizzlies. And when that happens, it’s harder for cubs to grow up because other adults out-compete or kill them.
The research found bears were eating more meat as pine nuts and fish sources declined. It also found little change in bears’ body fat or movement patterns connected to the loss of whitebark supplies. And while the number of bears killed by people has grown, the percentage of human-caused deaths has remained stable as the population has grown.
A number of people at Wednesday’s meeting objected to the report’s findings. Louisa Willcox of the Center for Biological Diversity challenged the whitebark conclusions, saying other studies show the bears to be much more dependent on the trees.
“We know the wheels are falling off the wagon in terms of habitat changes in the Yellowstone,” Willcox said. “We’re asking you to take a more precautionary approach, in the spirit of the Endangered Species Act.”
Christine Wilcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council criticized the report’s incomplete review process. She said it should have gone through a complete peer review and publication before being presented to the IGBC.
Van Manen acknowledged the report had not had a complete public examination. But he added it had passed two internal peer reviews, and would be completely published before the Fish and Wildlife Service was finished drafting a potential delisting rule.
Paul Fielder of Thompson Falls, Mont., told the committee it should keep public opinion in mind as it worked out its science. A majority of people in his area, which includes the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly recovery zone, were opposed to further relocations of grizzlies there.
“You’ve got to have a little political support,” Fielder said. “It’s local citizenry that makes projects like this work or not work.”
Servheen also worried about public and political backing for bear recovery. While the science and agency oversight has been critical during the past 33 years of the IGBC’s existence, the general public needed to be respected as well.
“If we don’t delist when the bears are recovered, that public and political support will evaporate,” Servheen said. “We have to signal a touchdown has been made.”
Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Jim Unsworth added he didn’t want to see grizzlies wind up in the same trouble as wolves.
“Wolves met their recovery goals in 2002-2003,” Unsworth said. “But then we went into litigation over delisting, and we lost a whole bunch of people who were in the middle of the road on the issue.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife manager Ken McDonald added states have already been spending millions of dollars managing grizzly bear conflicts and habitat. Taking full control from the federal government would help local people feel more in charge of local issues, he said.
“There’s a misperception that we’re just going to open it up and do whatever we want,” McDonald said. “There are still going to be mortality thresholds to respect, habitat management, road density standards and conflict management. Day-to-day, a person wouldn’t see much change.”
McDonald added public hunts could be part of the package. But they would be strictly regulated and tied to bear survival thresholds, similar to how trophy species such as moose and bighorn sheep are handled.
“The majority of funding for bear management right now has come from hunting license dollars,” McDonald said. “Sportsmen have footed the majority of the bill on recovery. There are a few who would like to see a return on that investment.”