Hilary Cooley is the Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“This population, we've known, we've thought that it has likely met the demographic recovery goals for many years now, and all the biologists — probably everybody in this room who studies bears — believes we've met recovery and we’re probably well above it. And this is a good time to start evaluating it formally,” Cooley says.
Cooley is one of two-dozen federal, state and tribal wildlife and land managers who met in Kalispell Wednesday as part of a subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. It’s this group, the IGBC, that will determine how grizzly bears will be managed in the future, whether or not they’re delisted from endangered species act protections.
The IGBC expects to vote on a final draft of the Conservation Strategy this summer.
Bear managers studying the population of bears in and around Glacier National Park put out their first draft of a Conservation Strategy in 2013. But things have changed since then. There’s more bears now and improved science for managing them. Grizzlies are now regularly popping up on the prairie east of the Rocky Mountain Front, and a single bear was documented passing west into the distinct Selkirk/Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.
Cecily Costello, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park’s Grizzly Bear Biologist, says these population expansions require new monitoring guidelines as part of how the bears should be managed. This will outlined in the upcoming Conservation Strategy.
“We made it an objective that we would report on, that we would look at the connectivity issues both from a genetic standpoint and trying to map the current distribution of the population. Every two years we would come out with a map that people could see where we are,” Costello says.
The updated strategy draft also calls for more monitoring in a buffer zone around the core habitat for bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. This could mean changing the model for estimating and maintaining population size.
“We kind of made it a little bit more conservative and we're tying it to trying to maintain at least a 90 percent estimated probability that the population is above 800 bears,” Costello says.
In other words, more bears mean more leeway for management.
“As the population increases, we can be a little less conservative. As the population gets closer to 800 we have to be more conservative. And if we have less information we also have to be more conservative,” Costello says.
These and other changes were met with skepticism by some of the 30 people who attended the regional bear management semiannual meeting.
Keith Hammer with the Swan View Coalition says some key definitions were changed in a way that opens up grizzly bear habitat to road and trail development.
“So to make it in really simple terms, it's like promising fish, freshwater fish, we're going to keep the same amount of water for you guys forever, and not telling them that we’re switching to saltwater. And it kills the fish. That’s what’s being done here. It is that blatant for those of us that do pay attention to the details,” he says.
Hammer wants to see all five of the distinct grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states connected and interbreeding. He says this strategy doesn’t allow for that.
“Well unfortunately, things are getting worse rather than better. Everything they outlined about their reworking of the conservation strategy for managing bears. They take our public comment and do the opposite. All of it goes against the bears and in favor of human developments in bear habitat,” Hammer says.
Hammer doesn’t trust that the agency members of the subcommittee will follow the protections outlined Conservation Strategy. But members of the subcommittee say they don’t have authority to regulate federal, tribal or state management actions.
Four area national forests are in the process of adopting amendments that will regulate grizzly bear protections. Final versions of the amendment are expected later this year.
Other attendees raised concerns that the draft conservation strategy doesn’t adequately address recourse for ranchers and farmers impacted by grizzly bears and raised questions about how to fund the monitoring and management activities the strategy outlines.
The Conservation Strategy is expected to be voted on by the IGBC executive subcommittee at its June meeting in Polson. That final draft will have a preface outlining changes and an appendix of responses to some 2,000 comments.