AWR Blog

Expert says More Space needed for Grizzlies

by Sherry Devlin of the Missoulian

‘The Fish and Wildlife Service’s current plan just won’t lead to recovery of bears over the long term.’
— Mike Bader, executive director Missoula’s Alliance for the Wild Rockies

The federal government needs a “much bigger and bolder” approach to grizzly bear recovery – including a habitat network of 76,000 square miles – if the goal is to “have bears around” a century from now, an environmental activist warned Tuesday.

Mike Bader, executive director of Missoula’s Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said his analysis – presented at this week’s meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology – concludes that a “genetically and demographically sound” population of grizzly bears would need a minimum of 58,753 square miles of habitat in the northern Rockies.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is charged with recovering a healthy population of bears, has not designated even that minimum amount of protected habitat for grizzlies, Bader said. “The recovery areas fall well below the range of grizzly bear needs. They won’t recover the bears.”

And the areas are not connected, but strand bears in too-small islands of habitat, he said.

Bader said he wrote the paper for the scientific society “because science should be the starting point for grizzly bear recovery.”

“As scientists, we have to tell people what the requirements are for a healthy bear population over the really long term,” he said. “We have to get it out on the table. Because the Fish and Wildlife Service’s current plan just won’t lead to recovery of bears over the long term.”

The grizzly bear has been listed as a threatened species, protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, since 1975.

Bader said his proposed network of grizzly habitat would use federal land in the northern Rockies to provide bears with the “huge lifetime home ranges” they need to survive and thrive. Individual grizzlies can cover up to 2,150 square kilometers of territory during their lifetime.

By using public land for the network, the impact on land management would be minimized, Bader said.

The species’ recovery, he said, “would happen over this very, very long scale of a couple hundred years. That’s how long it would take to grow back a healthy population of grizzly bears. So the changes, if any, in how we use the forest would be very gradual.”

The problem, though, is that Bader’s science does not take into account everything that will be required to recover the species, said Chris Servheen, the federal government’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator in the northern Rocky Mountains.

A bear biologist and another presenter at the conservation biology meeting, Servheen said “there is a big difference between conservation theory and conservation application. We don’t live in a technocracy, in which the absolute best thing science-wise always happens.”

“Scientifically, the best thing for the grizzly bear is no human beings living in grizzly bear habitat,” Servheen said. “We can’t do that. But we can use scientific information to manage access, provide secure habitat, limit human-caused mortality, and to monitor bears and their numbers. At the same time, we try to build support for bears among the people who live, work and recreate in grizzly bear habitat.

“Because they will always live, work and recreate in that habitat.”

Servheen said he isn’t interested in criticizing Bader’s science or ideas. Bader also, for example, believes a population of 2,000 grizzly bears would be considerably more likely to succeed in the Northern Rockies than the Fish and Wildlife Service’s target of 1,000 or fewer bears.

“But what guarantees the future of bears is not “x” number of bears alone,” Servheen said. “Realistically speaking, a population of 500 or 1,000 bears that is carefully managed and has the support of the people who live among them is a lot more secure than a population of 2,000 bears that lives with an alienated and outraged public.”

Replied Bader: “I pretty much agree with that. Ultimately, grizzly bears are likely to occur only where people allow them to live.”

But scientists, including those at the Fish and Wildlife Service, need to bring their research – their science – to the public, Bader said. “The social dimension, I would agree, is a big factor in grizzly recovery. Grizzly bears need all the friends they can get. Telling people what the bears need in biological terms sets the table for what we need to discuss. Then we can let the politicking begin.”

For a free copy of Mike Bader’s research paper, “Spatial Needs of Grizzly Bears in the U.S. Northern Rockies,” please email your mailing address to: awr@wildrockiesalliance.org

Key findings of the paper include:

  • The spatial needs of a genetically diverse, demographically sound grizzly bear population in the U.S. northern Rockies range from 147,883 – 184,919 km2 (57,100 – 71,400 mi2).
  • A region-wide grizzly bear population is likely to occur at a mean density of about 13.5 bears/1000 km2 (3.5/100 mi2).
  • A reasonable population recovery goal for grizzly bears is in the range of 2,000-2,500 grizzly bears.
  • A habitat network of approximately 190,000 km2 is proposed for grizzly bear recovery, in a metapopulation context, to accommodate the estimations for population and space.
  • The current system of grizzly bear recovery areas provides for less than 50% of the minimum spatial requirements and are comprised of isolated reserves which are at low fractions of the minimum population requirements for viability.
  • Bader concludes the grizzly bear recovery program, as currently described, will not lead to recovery of viable grizzly bear populations.

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