MISSOULA - Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) has completed a draft plan for managing grizzly bears once the bear is no longer a threatened species.
But delisting may be a long way off if land agencies allow more projects that threaten the bear’s secure habitat.
On Friday, FWP Region 2 supervisor Randy Arnold told the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) that FWP Grizzly Bear Planning Coordinator Rich Harris was done writing the Statewide Grizzly Bear Management Plan and related environmental impact statement. Arnold presented the information in place of Wildlife Chief Ken McDonald.
The draft plan will be made available early next week for a 30-day comment period. Arnold said once comments are incorporated, the final draft should be out by mid-February.
The plan incorporates aspects of Montana’s two existing grizzly plans and the IGBC conservation strategy documents for each recovery area. Harris also took into account a survey of Montana’s attitudes toward grizzly bears
“A piece I thought was really important — Rich gathered a lot of information from the recommendations from the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council in 2019. Those of you who followed the grizzly bear advisory council, they really did a wonderful job getting to the meat and challenges of managing grizzly bears in today's environment and the future environment,” Arnold said. “It’s a nice collection of where we’ve been and where we want to be tomorrow.”
In summary, the plan outlines how to manage grizzly bears in and outside recovery areas as their range expands, Arnold said. The plan also addresses connectivity, which is critical for species' genetic health and population maintenance.
“It makes clear that connectivity between recovery zones is an objective,” Arnold said. “Conversely, it discusses post-delisting zones, such as Zone 3. Grizzly bears in those places would likely be a lesser priority.”
Arnold said the plan also addresses the potential role of hunting but “it doesn’t describe that it will happen or how it will happen.”
Three audience members asked Arnold if the comment period could be extended to 60 days but received no response.
“While a 30-day comment period is appreciated, given the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, we have a lot on our plates this year. So, we request you double that or postpone the comment period until after Jan. 1,” said Keith Hammer.
Montana will need a grizzly bear management plan once grizzly bears are delisted. But, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is still considering three petitions to delist the bear: a Wyoming petition to delist grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a Montana petition to delist grizzlies in the NCDE and an Idaho petition to delist bears in the lower 48 states.
USFWS Grizzly Bear Recovery coordinator Hilary Cooley could only say the agency has made some progress. When NCDE chair and Flathead National Forest superintendent Kurt Steele asked what the subcommittee could do to move things along, Cooley said subcommittees need to continue focusing on reducing conflict and mortalities.
“The delisting thing, we need to maintain all of the criteria and minimize conflicts,” Cooley said. “Beyond that, there’s not a lot subcommittes can do. Focusing on reducing conflicts, we have some transportation goals, things that are impacting bear mortality. Focus on those things.”
The committee also approved a protocol for transplanting NCDE bears into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) to maintain genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding.
Montana has a memorandum of understanding with Wyoming and Idaho to move one bear by 2025 as part of a court order to ensure connectivity. Without proven genetic exchange between the two populations, delisting the GYE population is unlikely.
However, a subsequent discussion on development on public land showed that grizzly delisting could be stalled by another factor: human encroachment on secure grizzly habitat.
Representatives of land agencies argued that they have to develop more recreational areas to keep people from expanding into areas on their own. Biologists said continuing encroachment increased the risk of conflicts, leading to more bear deaths.
Steele brought up the recent growth in the Flathead Valley and increasing demand for camping areas and recreational opportunities. The Flathead National Forest use has grown 1% to 2% per year for the past 20 years and had 1.3 million visitors in 2020.
“With that increased use, how do you keep up with the demand?” Steele said. “I’ve heard some pushback on this 1-in-10. Just to make sure that we’re still aligned with the thought process that was put in the conservation strategy, are we still thinking that’s okay to have an expansion of developed overnight camping area and then wait to see what effects that has over whatever that 10-year gap is?”
The conservation strategy’s 1-in-10 rule limits agencies to one development project in each grizzly management unit every 10 years.
Former USFWS Grizzly Bear Coordinator Chris Servheen reminded the committee that when the US Forest Service (USFS) proposed the 1-in-10 rule, they used examples of small projects like repairing a roof, not large projects like bigger campgrounds or the expansion at Holland Lake Lodge. It was intended to allow small improvements while keeping grizzly habitat unchanged.
“It was fundamental to maintain that secure habitat from then into the future and not to change the impact on public land in those areas. This is particularly important today as we see accelerated development of private land all around and even within the recovery zone. No one is tearing homes down,” Servheen said.
“What troubles us — many managers and biologists — is we’re seeing interest in the public land managers to develop public land and bring more people into those public lands. Some of that is Holland Lake which is a disaster for grizzly bears," Servheen continued.
To delist the grizzly bear, the USFWS has to demonstrate there are sufficient regulatory mechanisms related to grizzly populations and the habitat to ensure the bear can persist.
“If we see erosion of public land in the PCA with developments like Holland Lake, cabins and new campgrounds, that is a clear demonstration that there is no adequate regulatory mechanisms when it comes to habitat. That will prevent delisting,” Servheen said. “If you, as managers, allow an erosion of the habitat baseline, it will put grizzly bears at risk, because it will increase displacement of bears into less secure habitat.”
Steele said the Flathead NF hasn’t made a decision on the Holland Lake Lodge expansion and he didn’t want to talk about it during the meeting.
“We haven’t done the analysis on it. If we actually go forward with the proposal, do an environmental assessment and consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we can see where it shakes out,” Steele said.
FWP bear biologist Jamie Jonkel suggested the USFS could try managing people rather than always choosing to do something about bears. For example, if there’s a bear near a trail in Glacier National Park, the Park Service closes the trail instead of hazing the bear.
“The primary conservation area isn’t that big an area,” Jonkel said. “We might in the future think about closing trails or managing some trails for impacts by people.”
Friday was the second day of the NCDE subcommittee meeting prior to next week’s IGBC executive meeting in Bozeman.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.