by Mike Bader
Federal officials with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) have announced plans to remove grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park region from the list of federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act. More commonly known as “de-listing,” this procedure would turn management of the bears over to state authorities in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Much of the bear habitat would be managed under guidelines developed by the U.S. Forest Service and the state of Wyoming has announced their intention to open a hunting season for grizzly bears.
The media has reported a split between conservationists who oppose and support de-listing. While one national organization, the National Wildlife Federation, supports de-listing, a host of national, regional and local organizations are opposed, based on several fundamental legal and scientific flaws in the proposal.
In a single rule, all grizzly bears in the lower 48 states were listed in 1975 as a threatened species under the ESA, recognizing a single listed population of grizzly bears in the lower 48. In listing any species, the government must consider 5 factors, “…that the species is endangered or threatened because of any one or a combination of the following factors: the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; over-utilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; disease or predation; the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.” These same factors must also be considered in any proposal to reclassify or de-list a listed species.
In the original listing rule for the grizzly bear, fragmentation of habitat and the isolation of the bear populations was identified as a major threat, along with the related threats to genetic diversity.
However, this factor has never been addressed for the Yellowstone population, despite many years of scientific reports calling for the establishment and protection of habitat linkage corridors and the fact that it is official agency policy to do so. For example, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, a committee of federal and state land managers who help coordinate grizzly bear management in the lower 48, recognize the detrimental effects of habitat fragmentation and endorse the linkage strategy. A letter signed by all the participants stated:
“If we do not maintain the opportunities for linkage of wildlife populations across these areas of human development, we will have difficulty securing the future of wildlife species such as the grizzly. To address the issue of habitat fragmentation, the IGBC supports the identification of those areas within and between the major grizzly bear ecosystems where wildlife can live or move between existing large blocks of relatively secure habitat. Wildlife habitat conservation and the eventual recovery of listed species such as grizzly bears will require connections between populations.”
De-listing without addressing the need for corridors is premature and ignores a major finding of conservation biology that populations on isolated islands of habitat are far less likely to survive.
The de-listing proposal is also premised on the belief that there are 600 or more grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region. However, there is little if any scientific validity to this estimate, since it is just that: an estimate rather than a rigorous scientific study. Few knowledgeable people would question there are more grizzly bears today, distributed over a wider area, than there were 30 years ago. However, given the documented high rate of lethal confrontations with humans, there is little reason to believe the Yellowstone population has tripled over that same time period. Moreover, many scientists have questioned the method of counting females with cubs based on visual sightings as the basis for measuring population recovery.
Certainly not least among the problems with the de-listing proposal is the scope and level of habitat protections. The state of Wyoming seeks to limit grizzly bears to the area surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and adjacent wilderness areas, excluding bears from vast areas of suitable habitat in the Wind River, Gros Ventre, Salt and Wyoming mountain ranges. The level of habitat protections on Forest Service lands are likely to decrease as they intend to exploit the areas for timber and oil and gas production.
While much of the discussion of the grizzly bear’s future is based upon complex scientific studies and mathematical models, it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that a population isolated on an island of habitat that continually erodes in size is pretty much doomed.