Grizzly bears that make their way into the Bitterroot Ecosystem will have Endangered Species Act protections. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials made that announcement a letter to National Forests in the area Tuesday.
The statement clarifies a longstanding question-mark over the status of grizzlies in the Bitterroot Ecosystem. The area is currently considered unoccupied, but is key for connectivity between Yellowstone and Glacier-area bears.
A Clinton-era plan would have reintroduced an "experimental" and "nonessential" population of grizzlies there, meaning that population wouldn't enjoy full protections under the ESA. That plan was scrapped in 2001. But until this week, the legal status and protections of grizzlies in the area were never formalized.
Mike Bader, a consultant with the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, says it’s a wake-up call to the Forest Service.
"The management and the protection is gonna have to adapt to catch up with the bears."
When the reintroduction proposal was on the table, the idea that grizzly bears could naturally repopulate the Bitterroots seemed a long way off. But a grizzly was mistakenly killed by an Idaho hunter just north of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in 2007. In 2018, another grizzly was captured and relocated from a golf course near Stevensville. And last year, multiple grizzlies were confirmed in the area.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for the Forest Service said the letter provides clarity on the legal status of grizzlies in the Bitterroots, and will inform future consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater says it’s a step in the right direction, especially as the Nez Perce-Clearwater moves forward with its draft forest plan, which was released in December.
"It is putting them on notice that they need to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and eventually they have to provide protection for grizzlies. And this forest plan doesn’t do any of that."
Macfarlane cites specifically the controversial practice of black bear baiting allowed in Idaho, and says the forests need to be more proactive as grizzlies meander into the area.
Public comment on the Nez Perce-Clearwater plan goes until March 19. Forest plan revisions for the Lolo and Bitterroot national forests are also underway.