State and federal grizzly bear experts meeting in Missoula this week have no shortage of topics to discuss.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee is catching up on everything from to habitat and conservation strategies to ongoing efforts to recover the animals’ overall population so it no longer needs federal Endangered Species Act protections.
"We’ve got a huge effort underway. It’s very complicated and we want to make sure everybody’s on the same page and being successful in moving forward.”
That’s Chris Servheen. He’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator. He says there are at least 1,000 bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes Glacier National Park and portions of northwest Montana.
There are also at least 714 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone area. Servheen says that’s not enough bears for those two populations to be delisted from Endangered Species Act protections, although it is enough to meet biological recovery goals.
"Delisting on the other hand is a legal process," Servheen says. "We have to go through with a threats analysis and public involvement in the process. Then we have to go through a legal structure to determine whether the bear is threatened or not listed anymore. There’s a difference between recovery and delisting. Both of those populations are recovered. Neither one is delisted yet.”
When and if Yellowstone grizzlies are delisted, Servheen says officials would work to stabilize them at the average population recorded from 2002 to 2014.
"That number is about 674. What we’re going to do is set up a system that we’ll enhance to make sure that we maintain that population from now on into the future.”
Servheen says state-regulated grizzly hunting seasons might be considered if federal protections are eventually lifted.
"As long as it’s within the mortality limits, and structures that have been established under the delisting system," Servheen says. "Those haven’t been fully agreed to yet and of course we haven’t proposed delisting yet, but if sport hunting did take place it would be carefully regulated, it would be fairly small and all mortalities from whatever cause hunting or bears hit by cars, whatever, would be counted under mortality limits and carefully regulated.”
If, under a theoretical delisting, the Yellowstone population were to nudge past the desired target of 674 bears, Servheen says a few more nuisance bears could end up being killed.
"Maybe even for hunting, but it would not be to any excessive rate," he says. "It would just move the population back down to 674 if need be. If, on the other hand, the population got below 674 then the number of management removals or any hunting would be reduced.”
A major issue with delisting is that the federal government would hand over a lot of control of grizzly bear management to states - specifically, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Matt Hogan explains.
“So all three states will work collectively to insure they stay within the agreed upon morality limits," Hogan says, "how they manage the mortality limits is totally up to the individual states.”
But delisting and giving states those rights isn’t triggered just by the number of bears in a given ecosystem, Hogan says.
“There is updating the recovery criteria, there is updating the conservation strategy. And the conservation strategy will govern how the bear is managed in post-delisting environment, and then those will inform the ultimate rulemaking that the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service would have to do delist the bear itself.”
Both the update of the conservation strategy and the rulemaking for delisting would have to go through a public comment period. Hogan says that, at this point, there’s no set timeline for any of that to happen.
“We are hopeful to get it out so the public can look at it and respond as quickly as possible, but to say it is out by the end of the year is a little difficult to say at this point.”
Tomorrow the interagency committee will turn its attention to other, less populated grizzly bear ecosystems in the Northwest.
Right now the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem is home to about 50 grizzlies. 75 are estimated to be in the Selkirk Ecosystem which covers northern Idaho, northeastern Washington and the southern tip of British Columbia. There are fewer than 20 grizzlies in the North Cascades of British Columbia and Washington state.