After two failed attempts to turn over management of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears to the northern Rockies states, federal wildlife managers are not immediately recommending that the region’s bruins be delisted for a third time.
The guidance to maintain grizzlies as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act across their range in the lower 48 states came in a five-year status review that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Regional Director Matt Hogan signed off on last week. But the lack of endorsement for Wyoming-, Montana- and Idaho-led management does not mean the federal government intends to maintain jurisdiction over the ecosystem’s 700-plus grizzlies indefinitely.
“The thing about the five-year review, is that people look at it and think that it precludes other actions,” Jodi Bush, Fish and Wildlife’s Montana field supervisor, told the News&Guide. “We haven’t made any decisions about what the next steps are going to be, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be next steps.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service is operating under a new presidential administration with new leadership, she pointed out. Deb Haaland was sworn in as secretary of the U.S. Department of the Inteior in mid-March. The country’s first-ever Native American cabinet secretary suggested during her U.S. Senate confirmation hearing that she hasn’t made up her mind about who ought to be managing grizzlies.
“I’m not saying that [grizzly management] shouldn’t be returned back to the states,” Haaland said in an exchange with U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana. “I would be happy to take a look at the issue, Senator.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service delisted Yellowstone-region grizzly bears in 2007 and 2017, but both times the decision was overturned by litigation. Plaintiffs persuaded a judge during the earlier attempt that federal wildlife managers failed to account for how a collapsing whitebark pine population would affect grizzlies, which use their squirrel-cached seeds as a major food source. In the latter case, environmental advocacy groups won the argument that Fish and Wildlife failed to consider how delisting Yellowstone grizzlies would affect the species in the rest of its range. They also convinced U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen with arguments about habitat connectivity and genetic diversity, and on the issue of “recalibration,” i.e., switching to a different method to count grizzlies, which could have increased the number of bears that states targeted during hunts.
“We lost on three points, two of which we need to work with our state partners to resolve,” Bush said. “I would never say we are not going to go for and look at delisting area by area, nor would I say that’s our next step, because we don’t know what our next step is going to be.”
For the time being, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is not expecting any changes in how it handles grizzly bears in the Equality State’s portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service calls the shots on what to do about grizzlies involved in conflict and the federally “threatened” classification prevents the states from holding hunting seasons, it’s the state wildlife agency that’s most involved in day-to-day management.
“On-the-ground actions, I don’t envision those changing,” Game and Fish large carnivore supervisor Dan Thompson said. “We’re still committed to trying to demonstrate recovery and focused on moving forward with delisting.”
Biologically, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzlies are “beyond the point of recovery,” Thompson said. The recovery criteria for the region’s isolated population of grizzlies, which bottomed out at as few as 136 animals in the 1970s, is 500 grizzlies and at least 48 females with cubs-of-the-year — metrics that have been consistently achieved since the early 2000s.
In the core of the Yellowstone region where grizzly bears are carefully monitored, a 2019 population estimate came up with 737 animals. But that doesn’t count bears that dwell more on the fringes of their range. Some 29% of occupied grizzly habitat in the greater Yellowstone area now falls outside of where Ursus arctos horribilis are tallied during annual surveys.
Politicians have seized on this expansion into areas where it’s more challenging for humans and the large carnivore to coexist to call for the federal government to cede management to the states. Wyoming U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, both Republicans, have introduced companion bills in Congress to force delisting of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population while also prohibiting future legal challenges. Neither of Wyoming’s Congressional delegates would consent to an interview for this article. Lummis said in a prepared statement that keeping grizzlies listed “hurts their populations more than it helps them.”
“Wildlife managers that live near the bears and study them closely have a better idea of population parameters than bureaucrats in Washington,” Lummis said. “It’s time to delist the grizzly in our area and let science dictate our wildlife policy.”
Cheney, meanwhile, charged in her own press release that her legislation would keep “unelected judges and bureaucrats” from dictating wildlife policy in Wyoming.
“The bill would also stop the abuse of the court system by environmental extremists,” Cheney said.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon supports using legislation to delist grizzly bears, spokesman Michael Pearlman said in an emailed statement.
“It’s our position that Wyoming’s grizzly bears have been biologically recovered for more than a decade,” he said, “and therefore the state should be managing the species.”
Congress has overruled the courts’ interpretation of the Endangered Species Act in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem before. In 2011, Sen. Jon Tester, of Montana, successfully attached a delisting rider to a U.S. Senate budget bill that gave Idaho and Montana jurisdiction over wolves in their states.
Center for Biological Diversity Senior Attorney Andrea Zaccardi is hopeful that history doesn’t repeat itself.
“Congressional representatives in the West are trying to sidestep litigation, which is supposed to be a check and balance on federal mismanagement,” Zaccardi told the News&Guide.
Seasonal Wilson resident and attorney Bob Aland has also condemned Cheney’s and Lummis’ legislative attempts. In a March 30 letter, he called on them to withdraw their “pernicious” bills.
“The results of two litigations over the last 15 years provide a perfect example of why the rule of law and an independent judicial system are the bedrocks of our democracy,” Aland wrote. “The courts weighed the facts and concluded four times that the Fish and Wildlife Service acted illegally and that the great bears should continue to be protected and preserved indefinitely.”
Until the Fish and Wildlife Service indicates otherwise, the agency is approaching the delisting question while looking at grizzlies across the Lower 48. That means that populations in six disconnected recovery zones would need to achieve recovery criteria before the federal government would make a proposal to delist the species across its range. Two of the zones — the Bitterroot and North Cascades recovery areas — don’t even hold a breeding population of grizzlies at this time.
“I think we’re going to continue to see a bear here or there moving through, but females take an awful lot longer to get to a new place,” said Hilary Cooley, Fish and Wildlife’s Grizzly Recovery Coordinator. “It’s going to be a long time before we see a breeding population in [the Bitterroot] or in any new area.”
Fish and Wildlife’s five-year status review of grizzly bears does not recommend expediting the recovery of grizzly bears by reintroducing them to the North Cascades or the Bitterroot ecosystem.
“We are still committed to trying to demonstrate recovery and focused on moving forward with delisting.” — Dan Thompson wyoming game and fish