The federal government’s proposal to take grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem off the Endangered Species Act’s threatened species list represents a tremendous achievement. It also demonstrates America’s enduring commitment to wildlife conservation.
The National Wildlife Federation — one of the nation’s largest conservation groups at 4 million members and supporters — has reached this conclusion only after a thorough review of the facts and documents on which the proposal was based. Two major reasons led us to our decision:
First is the success on the ground. Because of the law’s protections and the focused management efforts it has stimulated, the grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem has been growing at a rate of 4 percent to 7 percent a year for at least the last 15 years. There are now more than 600 bears in the population, and all demographic and distribution parameters in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Recovery Plan have been met or even exceeded.
Second, according to the Endangered Species Act, once a species meets the goals set for its recovery, federal protection as a listed species must cease as long as adequate regulatory mechanisms are in place to assure that the species will not again decline. To assure adequate regulatory mechanisms, a comprehensive strategy has been developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and the state fish and wildlife agencies in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. This comprehensive strategy specifies the habitat and population protections that will protect the grizzly population and habitat following delisting. After a careful review of this strategy, we have concluded it represents a good deal for grizzly bears.
Central to the strategy is the identification of a 5.9-million-acre Primary Conservation Area, where grizzly bears will be the management priority of land managers. The standard for this landscape, which is 98 percent federally owned, is that secure habitat will be maintained at 1998 levels, and no new development will be permitted without compensatory reductions in human activities elsewhere.
Based on the amount of secure habitat and the bear population it can support, leading researchers have estimated that there is a 99.2 percent probability that the Greater Yellowstone bear population will persist for 100 years, and a 96 percent probability of persistence for 500 years.
But there’s much more to the strategy than protecting the core habitat. The bear-management plans adopted by Montana, Idaho and Wyoming establish goals for expanding the grizzly range far beyond the intensively protected core area. Through these state plans, and a Forest Service commitment to adhere to them, an additional 6 million acres of habitat, with different levels of protection, are available for Yellowstone’s growing grizzly population.
Beyond the biology and the management plans, the future for Yellowstone’s grizzlies is bright because many other initiatives are underway that will benefit both bears and the people that live with them. The Gallatin National Forest, for example, with support from the National Forest Foundation, is bear-proofing campgrounds outside the core, so conflicts will be avoided even as the bear population grows.
The Predator Conservation Alliance and the Natural Resource Conservation Service are preventing bear attacks on livestock by providing ranchers with herders and range-riders. Defenders of Wildlife continues to offer financial assistance to landowners who propose projects that reduce bear conflicts. The Sierra Club is working with resorts such as Big Sky in Montana on better sanitation and educational outreach.
None of these programs depend on listing under the Endangered Species Act, and all will continue after grizzlies are delisted.
Following delisting, bears across the Northern Rockies may benefit most from the reordering of agency priorities that will occur. The state fish and wildlife agencies that take over the management lead in Yellowstone will have the primary responsibility for sustaining the existing population and expanding it into new habitats. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will then be free to turn more attention toward other grizzly bear populations that will continue to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Bear conservation in the Cabinet-Yaak, the Selkirks, the North Cascades, and, most importantly, the Selway-Bitterroots, has long lagged far behind that in the Yellowstone.
Thanks to the success in the Yellowstone area, it is now possible to increase the focus of the Fish and Wildlife Service on these areas. The success in Yellowstone stands as a sharp rebuttal to those who claim the Endangered Species Act doesn’t work. America’s largest carnivore, a species that requires millions of acres of high-quality habitat, has been recovered in one key area through the hard work of many people, organizations and agencies.
Tom France is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an attorney who has worked for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, Montana, for 24 years.
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