Federal biologists struggle for solutions after grizzly bears again listed as threatened

A grizzly bear and her two cubs approach the carcass of a bison in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

After a federal judge renewed endangered species protections for all grizzly bears in September, state, tribal and federal agencies are trying to regroup and decide their next move.

On Thursday, the Yellowstone Grizzly Coordinating Committee met to hear the latest estimates of the grizzly bear population and discuss how they might restore the species’ delisted status.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Servicehas until Dec. 21 to decide whether to appeal the judge’s ruling, said Hilary Cooley, the agency’sgrizzly bear recovery coordinator.

If there is no appeal, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee will need to decide how to deal with both the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem populations.

“We believe both populations have met recovery,” Cooley said. “Do we try the GYE again by itself and then follow with the NCDE? Do we try and do both together? There are pros and cons to all those approaches. The Service is evaluating those right now.”

The states are in consultation this week about whether they will appeal on their own, Cooley said. If so, the USFWS could join the states but that is undecided.

However, WildEarth Guardians representative Bethany Cotton said intervenors – such as the states or the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation – are not usually allowed to appeal on their own to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Under the court’s “remand rule,” when the only action is to send a decision back to a federal agency, the 9thCircuit rarely hears intervenors.

Cooley reminded the committee of the three reasons Missoula U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen gave for putting Yellowstone grizzlies back on threatened status.

Primarily, Christensen said, the USFWS failed to follow its own policy related to population segments by not considering how delisting the Yellowstone bears would affect other populations. In addition, the judge said the agency’s methods for estimating population size – called the Chao2 statistic – didn’t adequately track threats to the bears and that the USFWS needed to better enable migration between populations to prevent inbreeding.

Frank Van Manen, Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team leader, told the committee that his group estimates the current Yellowstone population averages about 700 grizzlies within the core area, which includes land in and around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

That’s based on two rounds of observation flights that identified 58 female grizzly bears with cubs in the core area.

Since 1983, the annual number of females with cubs has trended up, although the trend has slowedsince about 2002.

Van Manen said his teams also captured around 130 bears this year, 72 of which were trapped for management reasons, usually because of a human-bear problem.

The big surprise there is 70 percent of the bears captured had not been captured before.

“This is an indication of solid recruitment in this area,” Van Manen said.

Bears have been moving outside that core area – the designated monitoring area – for a number of years, so now about a quarter of the area grizzlies occupy is outside the DMA. And that’s where more bears are dying.

Van Manen said that across the greater Yellowstone ecosystem,the 25 human-conflict deaths and 18 livestock-related deaths were higher this year than in previous years, dating back to 2009. Fortunately, vehicle collisions were down from the high of 9 in 2016.

“What’s somewhat surprising to us is the number of (human) conflicts that are occurring inside the DMA,” Van Manen said.

Within the DMA, 41 of the 46 bear deaths were human-caused and most were in Wyoming. Eleven were female bears, which is 6 percent of the estimated female population. Managers need to keep that below a limit of 9 percent of the population.

More males died, which is expected, and the 26 confirmed deaths account for 15 percent of the male population.

Eighteen bears died outside the DMA. All the deaths were human-caused and all but one died in Wyoming.

Van Manen said the numbers could change in the next couple months; mortality tends to peak in the fall.

Bonnie Rice of the Sierra Club reminded the committee that it had developed a conflict prevention report in 2009 that should be updated, considering the conflict-mortality numbers. It’s important that the committee stand behind its prevention recommendations, Rice said.

Cotton said a lot of prevention research has been published in the decade since the report was published.

Van Manen said the level of conflict and numbers of deaths were a challenge, but the agencies are running out of places to transplant bears.

“The patterns have changed, but I don’t think the proposed solutions would be much different than they were a decade ago,” Van Manen said.

Members of the committee said they didn’t have much time to do such a review, but would take it up at their April meeting.