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Grizzlies back from the brink?

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Sarah Jane Keller | May 10, 2013 05:15 AM

Grizzly bears in the lower 48 were put on the endangered species list as threatened in 1975, a time when the survival of six bear populations in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington seemed tenuous. But thanks to decades of vigilance, the bears are doing much better, with about 1,400 to 1,700 in the lower 48, and the debate over removing them from the endangered species list has begun. It's already been going on for a while in the Yellowstone ecosystem, where a population of around 600 bears is isolated from northern bruins, but now there’s talk of delisting a larger population of about 1,000 bears in northwest Montana.

On May 2 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft conservation plan for how to manage that population, in what is known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, after they are removed from the endangered species list (which could happen within the next couple of years, as Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly recovery coordinator, Chris Servheen, told the Flathead Beacon this week, as long as a host of agencies agree to the plan, and the decision doesn't get hung up in court).

Since the bear population in northwestern Montana has been growing by an estimated three percent each year between 2004 and 2011, the draft plan maintains many management practices that seem to have been working. That means not increasing livestock allotments, motorized access or development in the “primary conservation area”: a big swath of Montana bordering Canada, and including Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Buffer zones alongside that area will also be managed to be bear-friendly in the hope that bears will use those areas to move into other protected, but grizzly-poor ecosystems, like the Cabinet-Yaak to the east or the expansive Selway­-Bitterroot Wilderness.

Something in the 148-page plan that really struck me is that even with a grizzly bear-sized body of bear science amassed over the last several decades, there’s a basic question that we still can’t answer about bear biology. Due to the flexible, plant and meat-eating diet of the wide-ranging bears, there is no known way to figure out the maximum number the environment can support in the long term. This number, called carrying capacity, is something you’d want to know about any species you are trying to manage and conserve, and would help frame the impending debate about how many bears are enough. Without that number, “how many bears do we need?” becomes as much a question of human behaviors and values as a scientific one.

As Servheen said while speaking at a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks meeting last week, “The challenge is what do we really want this landscape to look like? Are we happy with 1,000 (bears)? Do we want 800? There are people who want 1,400,” he said in the Flathead Beacon. “We’re trying to strike a balance for what the landscape can contain but what humans will also tolerate.”

Indeed, as grizzlies spill into backyards and grazing land, where they come into contact with chickens, garbage and cattle, it seems that having more bears will require more people tolerating bears. As the plan says, “For grizzly bear conservation to be successful, providing habitat on the landscape is not enough…people must accept the grizzly as a cohabitant of the land.”

People are the number one cause of documented grizzly deaths: Moving bears around because they are getting into trouble with people or livestock caused 89 griz deaths between 1998 and 2011 and illegal killings were next 60 with dead bears, followed by 43 killings of bears in self-defense.

Last year there were 38 grizzly relocations listed on Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife relocation website, and in 2011 there were 56. This is figuring into the delisting discussion and it’s something that Servheen pointed out when he spoke last week. “We have to transition from a program of recovery to a program of management,” he said. “We have to do that now because we have lots of bears and we have lots of bear conflicts.”

According to the draft conservation plan, many of these conflicts often come from things that attract bears, like garbage, human food, pet food, veggie gardens, orchard fruits, barbecue grills, and compost piles. Managing people, in addition to managing bears, can solve many of these problems.

Regulated hunting, with the specifics to be decided on by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, is also mentioned as an option in the management plan, and it’s something that will probably get a lot of attention. But how hard people work to prevent conflicts may have more bearing on how grizzlies progress as a population than a carefully managed bear hunt.

For example, after their apple and plum trees attracted grizzly bears last fall, Bob and Laurie Muth got help from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Defenders of Wildlife to install electric fencing around their property outside Kalispell, and had to destroy some trees in the process.

“There are things that cannot be put into words,” Bob Muth told the Daily Interlake. “And the aura surrounding a wild grizzly bear is at the top of the list…we are blessed to live in a place large enough and wise enough to be part of this breathtaking animal’s recovery from the road to extermination."

Sarah Jane Keller is an intern at High Country News.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, by Chris Servheen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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