Don’t expect the federal government to propose removing grizzly bears in Northwest Montana from the endangered species list anytime soon, officials say.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley says it’s complicated trying to prove in court that the grizzly population is recovered.
"It’s not a quick and easy answer figuring out how to do it, and do it in a way that works with our policies and makes it defensible — legally defensible. So we’re still trying to figure that out," Cooley said during a meeting Tuesday focused on the growing population of grizzlies in and around Glacier National Park. The area is called the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE).
A different population of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) was removed from the endangered species list in the summer of 2017, and many people expected the same for NCDE bears soon after that. But last fall a federal judge in Missoula overturned the GYE delisting decision.
Judge Dana Christensen’s decision made delisting NCDE bears more complicated because he said the way the Yellowstone-area bears had been delisted was fundamentally flawed.
The federal government filed an intent to appeal Christensen’s decision late last year, but can still back out of that process. They have until May 24 to officially file their briefs to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
At the same time, the NCDE population of grizzlies is expanding. It sprawls across 25,000 square miles. At its outermost edge northeast of Butte, a bear would only have to walk about 45 miles to get to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is prioritizing connecting those two areas, but there’s a lot that stands in the way: roads, agriculture and private property.
State legislators this session solidified funding for three of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ existing bear managers, and to hire a new one. FWP Region 2 supervisor Randy Arnold says the new manager’s exact location hasn’t been finalized, but there’s an urgent need as grizzlies move across the landscape.
"When we were talking about where we needed it, it was with an eye towards connectivity and an expansion of grizzly bear populations from both ecosystems," Arnold says.
State, federal and tribal agencies tasked with bear management say they still struggle with a lack of staffing and funding. Part of that is for increased education and conflict mitigation in areas where people aren’t used to living with grizzlies.
FWP has hosted meetings as far east as Havre, and grizzlies have been seen all the way out to Two Dot.
In 2018, a record year, 52 grizzlies were confirmed dead or relocated from the NCDE. But state biologists say that was just a spike, and nothing to worry about for the long-term health of the population. Outside watchdog groups say the Forest Service and state need to take all this expansion and mortality seriously.
"I think the biggest thing that sticks out is the lack of discussion of habitat and the impact of forest roads on grizzly bears," say grizzly bear advocate Mike Bader.
Four conservation groups filed suit last month against the forest plan for the Flathead National Forest, which was published in December, alleging it abandons commitments to decommission old roads and maintain low road density. Large, roadless areas are critical for grizzlies to reproduce, the suits claim.
That lawsuit is still pending and the government has until June to respond.