Grizzly bears in and around Montana are moving faster than the people tasked with managing them. That’s the takeaway from the year-end update from the group of federal and state wildlife experts who met this week in Missoula.
About 20 members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, an organization in charge of grizzly bear management and recovery, crowded around a conference table, discussing the six ecosystems designated as grizzly bear habitat south of Canada.
Mortalities – especially from conflicts with humans – are on the rise, they said, and bears are showing up in areas they haven’t been seen in decades, or even centuries.
At the same time, in September a federal judge in Missoula blocked removing Yellowstone-area grizzlies from the Endangered Species list. That’s put question marks over the futures of both those bears and grizzlies in and around Glacier National Park.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still deciding whether or not to appeal that decision.
"That’s coming up in about two weeks, and the U.S. government is involved in deciding what we’re gonna do there," says Hilary Cooley, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
USFWS was expected to announce delisting plans for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), or the roughly 1,000 bears in and around Glacier Park, by the end of the year. But Judge Dana Christensen’s decision on Yellowstone bears threw a wrench in the works.
He blocked delisting Yellowstone grizzlies because, he said, the Fish and Wildlife service failed to consider how delisting affects other populations of bears, how populations might connect, and how to properly count bears using a new method that could inflate reported grizzly numbers.
"We’re just taking a step and looking at all of our options right now," Cooley says.
The state of Wyoming, an intervenor in the Yellowstone case, filed a notice to appeal the decision last week. The federal government has until December 21 to decide whether or not to try to take the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Even though delisting plans are on hold, the state of Montana adopted a rule earlier this week that will dictate how Glacier area, or NCDE grizzlies, are managed if and when federal protections are removed.
At the same time, it’s been a record year for grizzly mortalities in the NCDE. A total of 51 bears died or were moved away from the Glacier area. In the Yellowstone area, that number was 65, the highest number in at least a decade.
Frank Van Manen, supervisory research wildlife biologist for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, said grizzlies in the Yellowstone area are venturing farther from their core habitat, into areas dominated by private land and plains.
"This is really the crux of the biggest challenges in the coming years," he says.
The same is true to the north, as NCDE grizzlies venture farther and farther east of the Rocky Mountain Front. That crux means bear managers must pay more attention to how people and grizzlies get along in areas where the two aren’t used to meeting.
Grizzlies are expanding elsewhere, as well. In October, a two-year-old grizzly was trapped on a golf course in the Bitterroot Valley near Stevensville. The bear was relocated back to the NCDE, raising questions of how bears that make their way to the Bitterroot Ecosystem could populate the area, or provide a potential link between the NCDE and Yellowstone populations.
State and university studies are under way to understand better how that link might occur.
As populations grow, reactions differ across the state. Maggie Nutter of the Marias River Livestock Association, expressed concern for human safety.
"We’re concerned about our livestock, don’t get me wrong. But I can’t replace a grandchild. I can’t replace my mom who has bears in her backyard," Nutter says. "Those people are irreplaceable and they need to be priority over any wildlife."
Mike Bader, an independent wildlife consultant in Missoula, urged the opposite. He said we need far more bears in order to reach recovery. But as emotions run high for the uncertain future of the grizzly, he also encouraged empathy.
"Our bar for recovery may be different than the bar you’ve set, but it’s never personal," Bader said. "I just wanted to leave you with a smile and let you know that it’s never personal, so always remember that."