The federal official charged with leading the U.S. polar bear program has departed Alaska for Missoula, Montana, to oversee grizzly bear recovery in the Lower 48.
Hilary Cooley, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s new grizzly bear recovery coordinator, has stepped into the job vacated by 35-year veteran Chris Servheen. Cooley will have the opportunity to finish what Servheen started: seeing through the Endangered Species Act “delisting” process for Yellowstone-area grizzlies, which turns over jurisdiction from Fish and Wildlife to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzlies, she said, are ready to be managed by the states.
“It’s been that way for a long time,” Cooley said in an interview. “Fish and Wildlife Service, our job is to delist when a population is recovered. Remove the threats and then delist.”
The Greater Yellowstone population was last assessed at 690 bears within a monitoring area in the ecosystem’s core, and it’s thought to be expanding to new reaches along the periphery. Although numbers have fallen two straight years, from a high of 750, federal scientists say the decline is not yet statistically significant enough to indicate a trend.
After delisting — if and when it occurs — Cooley will remain involved with the Yellowstone-area population by continuing with monitoring duties and having a technical advisory role on the Yellowstone Grizzly Coordinating Committee, which does not yet exist.
Cooley’s energies will also shift to the other five grizzly bear recovery areas that lie south of the Canadian border. The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population, the largest, has also met its recovery goals and will likely be the next to go through the delisting process, she said.
Before the Alaskan stint Cooley was Mike Jimenez’s counterpart at Fish and Wildlife as the wolf coordinator for the Pacific Northwest. She was a regional wolf biologist before that for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Controversy, she said, has been a “stringer” that’s pervaded all the topics of her work.
“Even in graduate school,” Cooley said, “I was dealing with mountain lions in Washington state after there had been some human attacks.
“It’s not that I love it, but I’m comfortable with it,” she said of the controversial nature of her profession. “Some people take it personally, and I’ve learned to not.”