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The grizzly delisting conundrum

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A grizzly bear seen near Wapiti Lake Trail in Yellowstone National Park. PHOTO BY ERIC JOHNSTON

Who wins, bears or humans?

By Benjamin Alva Polley EBS CONTRIBUTOR

Imagine a few years from now, on an April day north of Yellowstone National Park. Grizzlies have been removed from the endangered species list in Montana and Wyoming. A beast the color of Montana’s late autumn ambles out of the park boundary, in and out of the range of hunters who value her silvertip chestnut coat. There’s no map showing the grizzly a route to other protected areas, no lines on the land marking safe passage. In these states’ open space, once she crosses the hairs of a rifle, her life will go blank. In this scenario, her survival is up to luck. With grizzly numbers barely recovered in the region, chance may not be enough to protect all the hard work and taxpayer dollars that’s gone into keeping them from total extinction.

In the last two years, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming petitioned the federal government to individually manage the bruins in the hopes of profiting from trophy hunting. Only Montana and Wyoming possibly qualified, with a federal decision expected within the year. If delisted, states would permit ranchers and hunters to shoot ‘explorer bears’ if they wandered outside the protected zoos we drew lines around a century ago. It’s also thought that special interests in these states hope to profit from trophy hunting.

In Montana, the move might be seen as the latest result of Gov. Greg Gianforte and special interest groups hijacking Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. The politically appointed state wildlife commission is stacked with rank-and-file friends with deep pockets and hunting outfitters who many view as taking a management agency once held in international scientific esteem hostage for personal and political gain.

Is the delisting bid a revenge move to settle past disputes with “leftist environmentalists”? Some might even ask after personal motivations: Does the governor want to place a bear next to the wolf he killed last year outside the gates of Yellowstone?

“He wants to go after the grizzly, like he proposed going after wolves, with aircraft and nightlights,” grizzly bear expert Doug Peacock said. “They don’t know anything about hunting bears. Grizzlies are way too easy to kill. I spent 20 years stalking them with a camera. I saw over 200 of them and could have blasted any of them. Black bears are harder to hunt because they are shy forest animals, whereas grizzlies are creatures of the open country.”

Has Montana’s state animal fully recovered enough to warrant delisting? According to estimated historical populations, as many as 50,000 bruins once strutted from the Pacific coast to the Mississippi River and from northern Mexico to Alaska. Today, an estimated 2,000 bears roam the Lower 48, primarily in Montana and Wyoming, with a few trickling into Idaho—but even those estimates are tenuous.

“Counting grizzlies is a loose science, especially in Yellowstone where they extrapolated populations,” Peacock said. “Glacier is better because they at least collected a lot of DNA through hair samples.”

The small boundaries of national parks, laughably small compared to historical ranges, aren’t enough to protect the bears if they’re delisted.

“Neither Glacier nor Yellowstone is quite big enough. They don’t have everything in them a bear may need,” said Peacock, echoing one district judge’s reservations about hunting and delisting the Yellowstone population and what those moves would do to the other populations. “Yellowstone is still physically and genetically an island. You can hunt a population like this into extinction in just a few years.”

Grizzlies are also up against other modern challenges—scientific data that the state wildlife agency should be accounting for—without facing the threat of hunting.

Ursines are traveling onto the plains, farther from the mountains. Some of that movement is due to growing numbers, while some is climate adaptation. In the alpine, blister rust and pine beetles decimate whitebark pines; the cones are a significant food source, but only mature pines as old as 50 years produce them. Blister rust and beetles are only increasing with warmer temperatures.

What the fungus doesn’t conquer, fire may destroy, transforming forests into grasslands that become less nutritious for bears. Army cut-worm moths are another primary food source, only hatching high on alpine rocks. The moths are fickle because they migrate from pesticide-laden agricultural fields in Kansas and Saskatchewan. This past year, the berry crop failed in many areas, forcing the bruins to wander to neighboring towns and ranches. Are these events static in time, or are they climactic signatures that will magnify with a warming planet? Bears are also being displaced by trophy homes by carving up habitats on the edge of wildlands. What chances does a bear have?

Once the bears come out of the mountains, they become habituated to garbage, chickens, and gardens. They can get in trouble with livestock—usually our fault for not recognizing the responsibilities of living on the wildland/urban interface. However, these encounters typically don’t end up in the bear’s favor.

Blackfeet Tribal member and Montana State Representative Tyson Running Wolf said, “Local grassroots involvement needs to be the driving force for delisting bears. Not federal or state-driven when it comes to managing because that private/public interaction needs to be considered and how those efforts will be mitigated.”

Is this what Montana conservation has become? A billionaire governor and his allies dismantling the science-based wildlife management model that Montanans have fought long and hard to preserve and protect, one that we’ve taken pride in when other states haven’t done the same—or can’t because they don’t have the amount of habitat or space that Montana does? Grizzlies don’t have time for us to deliberate our political differences. Our decisions should be based on science. 

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