Wildlife managers are laying the groundwork to remove federal Endangered Species Act protections for grizzly bears in and around the Continental Divide in northwest Montana later this year.
On Tuesday, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s executive committee was expected to vote on a so-called Conservation Strategy. But the vote was delayed to give members more time to consider public comments.
Scott Jackson is the national carnivore program lead for the U.S. Forest Service.
"We don't want to ask the public for comment and then immediately go to a vote. That's pretty disingenous. I know it's not satisfactory to everyone but it at least provides some opportunity for the executive committee members to hear what the public thoughts are and consider them over the next couple weeks ... whenever there is a vote taken."
The latest revision of the conservation strategy was made public last Friday afternoon. It outlines what federal, tribal and state agencies have agreed to do to maintain a genetically diverse and stable grizzly population into the future, with or without federal protections.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee is made up of federal agencies, like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and Glacier National Park, and state and tribal agencies. They meet several times a year to discuss best practices for supporting the six distinct populations of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states.
They’ve paid special attention to bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in recent years, as bears in and around Glacier National Park continue to increase in number and range.
Some groups criticize how the strategy has been developed and say it doesn’t have enough teeth to ensure agencies will carry it out.
Keith Hammer is with the Swan View Coalition. He wrote a letter to the executive committee board last week, saying that the public didn’t have enough time to review and comment on the conservation strategy.
"And now today, after we put them on the spot, they allowed us to do public comment on a document they have yet to provide us, which is totally a farce," Hammer says.
Hammer also says he’s concerned the language in the conservation strategy isn’t binding.
"When it comes down to enforcing provisions in a conservation strategy, or a forest plan or a park plan; only standards are legally enforceable. Objectives are just feel-good aspirations," he says.
But Scott Jackson with the Forest Service says the conservation strategy isn’t a regulatory document. It’s a compilation of the regulations agencies have already put in place to support grizzlies, and a set of objectives the agencies together have agreed to work toward.
He says the strategy stays away from words like “standards” and “guidelines” because each agency has a different legal definition for those terms. He says using “objectives” avoids confusion.
"It doesn't water down the protections," Jackson says. "It doesn't make the objectives of the conservation strategy somehow optional, because again, the real regulatory mechanism, the real agency commitment are their plans that they have in place, that have been developed through public processes but still has the standards and guidelines language that commits them to doing those things."
Some people at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting praised the conservation strategy for taking private landowners into account.
Trina Bradley is the vice president of the Marias River Livestock Association.
"I feel like they've pretty much covered their bases and I trust that they know what they're doing. This is what they do for a living. They’re not going to tell me how to run my ranch, so I’m not going to micromanage them," she says.
Bradley says she’s paid particular attention to a chapter about conflict prevention. She says Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is already implementing parts of that chapter by responding to bear-related incidents faster and preventing future run-ins by educating livestock owners about best practices for grain storage, using electric fences and guard dogs.
"Since they're outlined in the plan, I feel like hopefully they'll keep following those plans and keep stepping up their efforts to prevent conflict."
The executive committee will likely vote on the conservation strategy over a conference call but no timeline has been set. It will take effect when agency heads sign on.
At that point, the strategy and the management criteria it outlines will become part of how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides whether to remove federal Endangered Species Act protections for bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. That decision will be open to public comment.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee also voted to put together a committee to address discrepancies in food storage orders and spent a chunk of the afternoon discussing how to maintain or create connectivity corridors between distinct grizzly populations.
About 60 people attended the IGBC meeting. Its Yellowstone Grizzly Coordinating Committee next meets October 31 in Jackson, Wyoming.