They are both breathtaking and fearful, an economic boon and an apex predator, and so we should not be surprised by controversy surrounding a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service effort to remove Endangered Species Act protections from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The iconic species has made an incredible comeback in the past four decades, growing from fewer than 150 individuals in 1975 in the more than 34,000-acre ecosystem that includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, as well as the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Parkway, to nearly 700. Or maybe even 1,100. Or something in between.
While Yellowstone scientists believe the grizzly population in the park has reached its equilibrium, and so are not opposed to the delisting concept, exactly how the surrounding states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho would manage grizzlies that roam out of the parks is uncertain and has generated concern from the National Park Service, conservation groups, and at least one member of Congress. And it could generate public outrage, too, if the process isn't transparent, which it hasn't been so far.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials have based their proposal on an estimated population of 674 bears within the ecosystem, and set a minimum acceptable population of 500 bears. But concerns arising from those numbers, and uncertainty of how the states will manage the bears outside the parks and Rockefeller Parkway, have left the behind-the-scenes work open to much criticism and concern.
"My problem with this whole thing is that the public does not have the opportunity to look at what they consider the final draft plan, a final draft Conservation Strategy, and a final draft of the three state management plans, so how do they know what they’re looking at?" Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk told the Traveler recently. "Originally, I believe that the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to update the Conservation Strategy and put it back out for public review, but they’ve since said they’re not going to do that.”
There are a range of complicated issues that could, in the end, delay the process so long that if the Fish and Wildlife Service manages to announce its decision on whether to delist or not by year's end, as it hopes, the incoming administration could put a hold on that decision until it carefully reviews the matter. Too, lawsuits from groups opposed to delisting could delay any final decision.
"This proposal has multiple serious problems, as Park Service leaders have made clear, and until FWS addresses those issues, I cannot support the delisting," U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-New Mexico, said in a letter to Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. "Fish and Wildlife needs to put law and science ahead of short-term local wishes to reduce the bear population. In the meantime, grizzlies must continue to receive endangered species protections."
Issues that need to be resolved include:
- Agreement between FWS and the three states on the grizzly population in the GYE;
- How many bears can be hunted in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, both annual cumulative total and annual state allowance;
- Will the number of bears allowed to be hunted go up if in the future the ecosystem's grizzly population number is revised upward;
- Will grizzlies be fair game in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Parkway between Yellowstone and Grand Teton (a deal killer from the Park Service's point of view);
- Will the three states commit to maintaining long-term population stability;
- Will connectivity between the GYE and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem be strenthened, and;
- How close to Park Service lands will hunters be allowed to take bears?
To help guide delisting, a map of the GYE has been drawn up with four circles on it: 1) An inner red circle that designates the Primary Conservation Area, or PCA, that includes Yellowstone but also some areas outside the park; 2) a larger black circle designates the Demographic Monitoring Area, or DMA, in which Fish and Wildlife would aim to maintain a recovered population of grizzlies; 3) gray shaded circles that designate grizzly bear distribution in the ecosystem in 2014, and; 4) a dark blue circle that outlines the distinct grizzly population within the Greater Yellowstone Area, or GYA.
“I think everybody believes that the population numbers are sufficient to delist, in terms of 'everybody' being the federal agencies and the state agencies," Superintendent Wenk said. "And we believe that we’re at a density within this core, but we're concerned about what happens (in terms of hunting allowances) within the PCA and the DMA. The things we’ve asked for we think are important to get in terms of the future of the grizzly bear.”
“This decision, which is going to determine the future of the grizzly bears of Yellowstone and Grand Teton, cannot be rushed, and it is being rushed," maintains Stephanie Adams, the Yellowstone program manager for NPCA. "We have really worked long and hard to restore the number of grizzly bears, and it would be shortsighted to not develop a plan that puts in the adequate protections to see that the population remains stable and is able to increase in size and geographic distribution.”
At the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Chris Colligan, noting that the Obama administration wants to get a delisting decision before it leaves office, expressed concern that the Fish and Wildlife Service and three states remain far apart in their talks at this late stage.
"There still is disagreement between those agencies over, for example, are we going to maintain a stable population into the future? And that is very alarming at this hour," he said this past week. "They’ve pushed back from this idea of population stability."
When asked whether the states' reluctance to commit to population stability stemmed from the view that grizzlies are predators that should be removed from the ecosystem or treated as trophy animals that could draw more hunters, and revenues, into the states, Mr. Colligan, GYC's wildlife program coordinator, replied that, "My first reaction is that it’s more a philosophical viewpoint of state ideology or the management of a species post-delisting. Rather than reassure the public and all the partner agencies that, 'We will continue to commit in the future to maintaining a stable population in the future' … they are saying that that is a right of the states to determine in the future.”
Some clarity could come later this month when the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meets in Cody, Wyoming, on November 16-17.
"That subcommittee is charged with redrafting the Conservation Strategy. They've been meeting, and I think their next meeting, I think they are expected to have a fairly final document," said Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Serena Baker. However, she didn't think that document, once finalized, would be open to public comment.
Ms. Baker did say, however, that the modeling used by the Fish and Wildlife Service to estimate the grizzly bear population in the ecosystem and for its management going forward "erred on the side of utmost caution and ... represents the most conservative numbers."
"The population that the Service is working with is, basically, the population that remained stable between 2002 and 2014. That's approximately 674 grizzly bears," she said. "And so, based on that, if there are more than 674 bears, then there are more bears available for 'discretionary mortality,' which would include everything from poaching to problem management bears, bears killed on the highway, and any bears available for hunting. Even if numbers change, populations tend to be cyclical, it provides a safe stop-gap measure for what would be allowed to maintain a healthy, thriving population. If you get down to 600 bears in the ecosystem, then there is no discretionary mortality at that level, except for human safety."
Concerns over connectivity -- the ability of grizzlies to at least be able to move back and forth from Yellowstone to Glacier National Park -- also have been raised by the Park Service and conservation groups. Ms. Baker said the Fish and Wildlife Service monitors this area for bears and "has found that grizzly bears currently are found approximately halfway between those two ecosystems, and so it's likely that those populations will connect in the near future, just through natural dispersement and movement."
"But approaches for increasing the likelihood of natural movement of grizzly bears and genetic exchange between the different ecosystems are outlined in the Conservation Strategy," she said.
Grizzly bears are not particularly fast when it comes to reproduction. A female usually doesn't mate before she's the age of 4 or 5, and if summer foraging isn't great, a fertilized egg might not become viable. Once she does have her litter -- of two or three cubs, normally -- she'll rear them for another two or three years before she'll mate again. As such, the "allowable" number of bears that could be killed each year, whether by hunters or management actions, is a key topic of debate. Already in 2016, more than 50 grizzlies, including nine known females, have been killed in car accidents, removed for livestock depredations, drowned in a cement irrigation canal, and killed by other bears.
According to Superintendent Wenk, in round numbers, over the past decade about 40 bears have been removed on average due to management actions "because they got into cattle, because they’re causing property damage, they get hit by cars." Under the Conservation Strategy proposed by the FWS, about 80 bears total a year could be removed from the population via management actions and hunting.
“The bottom line of all of that is, OK, now where and how are those bears going to be taken (by hunters)? Are you going to have a spring season? Are you going to have a fall season? What are you going to allow, what aren’t you going to allow, and how many of those bears can be females?" he wondered aloud.
"The Conservation Strategy lays that all out. And you can’t take any females if they have cubs with them of any age. Whether they’re cubs of the year or yearling cubs, you can’t shoot them," the superintendent said. "What if you can’t tell? What if the cubs are 100 yards away when you shoot it? There are all kinds of things that play into this. What's the reporting process? What happens if you wound a bear and you’re hunting near the park? And you shoot and you wound a bear and that bear goes into the park? You can’t follow it in, you can't take it. Does that mean you get to go shoot another bear? Under their bear plan, it does."
Without knowing how the three states would manage grizzlies -- when would their hunting seasons be, how many bears could each state take -- it's difficult if not impossible to gauge the ability of the Conservation Strategy to maintain a thriving population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“We as the public have not had a chance to see the overall delisting package," said Ms. Adams of the NPCA. “The state management plans were being either updated or modified when the first round of public process occurred on the delisting package, and since that time, the package has not been rereleased with all the pieces in place.
"Right now, the key piece is the Conservation Strategy. This is the long-term management plan that is going to guide management into the future," she added. "That is a document that is still being revised. What we have been told is that they’re not planning to release that for public comment.”
Another critical issue in the eyes of the National Park Service is whether hunting would be allowed in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway. Under its enabling legislation, hunting is permitted, but the Park Service wants the Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of Wyoming to agree to ban grizzly hunting there.
"We don’t want them to hunt bears on the boundary of Yellowstone National Park. If they’re going to hunt, they should hunt away from the park and areas of human-bear conflict," said Superintendent Wenk. "We’ve said that they should not hunt in John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway. And we want commitments. We want them in the rule. Whatever we can get in the rule, we want in the rule, because that’s law."
For now, though, the general public and interested stakeholders can only guess what plans the Fish and Wildlife Service and states are agreeing to.
“The timing and the political clock are not serving the agencies’ needs or the public needs on this decision. It should be a conservation story that brings constituents together," said Mr. Colligan. "I think this process is actually driving the agencies against one another … and it’s driving the public further apart, but uniting groups" against this process.
“This hasn’t been a very transparent process, and it isn’t creating support within the conservation community that we had hoped," he added. “Basically, everything that has been done to this point has been done without the knowledge of what the post-delisting management framework would be.”