Vast Bitterroot ecosystem grows in importance as grizzly bear recovery unfolds

With grizzly bears back on the endangered species list, an interagency group has unexpected time to consider its next steps, particularly related to addressing a judge’s concerns. But some are asking for more action in the Bitterroot ecosystem.

As the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee gathered in Missoula Tuesday to review how the bears are doing in five recovery areas in the Northwest, several committee members apologized for the brevity of their presentations. With all populations back on the threatened list, they had little to report other than monitoring results.

“With the judge’s ruling in September, it kind of threw a wrench into what are we going to do,” said Ken McDonald, Yellowstone subcommittee chair. “We’ll see what happens with the delisting process moving forward, which may dictate some additional tasks for the subcommittee.”

Members of the Bitterroot subcommittee are used to short meetings because no bear recovery has been pursued in that ecosystem, so they focus only on education efforts. But chairman Chuck Mark said that needs to change after a grizzly bear recently turned up on the Stevensville golf course.

“The question that came up at our meeting in November was ‘Now what?’ Where do we put him? We probably need to start having those discussions,” Mark said. “For us, it’s been just status quo for a long time. When do we start getting proactive?”

Chip Corsi of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game said the Bitterroot quandary wasn’t much different than figuring out what to do when a bear turns up anywhere outside the three active recovery areas.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Coordinator Hilary Cooley said USFWS biologists had been having the same discussion after a grizzly bear turned up in Two Dot.

However, she said one problem with trying to initiate grizzly bear recovery in the Bitterroot was the USFWS had legally established the region as one where they might introduce an experimental population, similar to what happened with wolves in the Idaho wilderness.

“The rule is still on the books 18 years later. We’re not going to reintroduce bears if that rule’s there. We’ve also been having discussions of ‘what does that mean if a bear shows up there on its own versus if we move the bear?’ There’s some things we’re trying to work out,” Cooley said.

Many had anticipated that Cooley might announce that the agency had decided whether or not to appeal the Missoula federal district court ruling that relisted all the bears. But as she has in two previous subcommittee meetings, Cooley said that the USFWS has until Dec. 21 to decide, and it looks like the agency will deliberate until the 11th hour.

One of the issues that U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen flagged in his ruling is related to a change in how agencies estimate the size of grizzly bear populations.

For years, the team has used a statistic called “Chao2” to estimate the total population based upon annual counts of female bears with cubs. It’s considered a conservative estimate because of limits on how biologists can count the bears during observation flights. But once the Yellowstone population was poised for delisting, the Yellowstone committee tried to change to a less conservative estimate or population model. Conservation groups cried foul, saying that would inflate population numbers if it couldn’t be shown to correspond with the Chao2.

Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team lead Frank van Manen said he was calculating estimates using other methods to see if he can recalibrate to the historic estimates. He said one option was to go back to using the Chao2.

“It would be more of an option if it wasn’t biased low,” van Manen said. “For a recovering population that makes sense. But with a recovered population, from a purely scientific standpoint, you want to be right on, because only then can managers make the best decisions,” van Manen told the Current.

While discussing the Cabinet-Yaak-Selkirk populations that are only halfway to recovery, biologist Wayne Kasworm said Idaho may be worried about what to do with bears, but it was creating its own problem by allowing bear baiting during the hunting season.

Kasworm told the story of a Cabinet grizzly killed after getting into bear bait near Wallace, Idaho, and another that was captured after it got into bear bait south of the Clark Fork River. With a total population of only about 50 to 60 bears in the Cabinet-Yaak, Kasworm can’t afford to lose many.

“It’s a little bit of a tough management issue here where one day we’re trying to minimize attractants, but when black bear season opens up, that’s not the case,” Kasworm said.

Still, Kasworm said he also didn’t want to get any more bears than the one per year he promised his stakeholders. It’s taken him 20 years to gain some acceptance for grizzlies in northern Idaho, so he didn’t want any transplants like the Stevensville bear.

During public comment, George Nickus of Wilderness Watch said that’s why the committee should work on expanding social tolerance. Nickus accused the committee of being too concerned about “dotting ‘I’s and crossing ‘t’s” on its plans with delisting being its only goal.

“We don’t have grizzlies in the Salmon-Selway-Bitterroot country yet. We can argue about how many bears are in Yellowstone or Glacier. But there’s a whole lot of habitat that is not occupied by bears now. And we really need to focus on getting bears distributed around the West and building that social tolerance,” Nickus said.

But Marias River Livestock Association representative Maggie Nutter criticized the committee for assuming that education would increase grizzly tolerance because ranchers consider it to be forced compliance. She said the committee should put more emphasis on human safety, suggesting that bears that come into towns or residential areas should be eliminated.

“We’re concerned about our livestock, don’t get me wrong. But I can’t replace a grandchild, I can’t replace my mom who has bears in her backyard. Those people are irreplaceable, and they need to be priority over any wildlife,” Nutter said.

On Wednesday, the committee is scheduled to hear about bear conflicts and what is being done to reduce them.