Will plan save or destroy the grizzly?

  • Grizzly bear

    Neal and Mary Jane Mishler

A two-month battle between environmentalists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials over the newly released Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan may end up in court.

On Jan. 26, three environmental groups, the Fund for Animals, the Colorado-based Biodiversity Legal Foundation, and the Montana-based Swan View Coalition, gave 60-days' notice to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they intend to sue because the plan violates the Endangered Species Act.

They say the plan fails to regulate development in grizzly habitat, uses an inaccurate population monitoring system, sets minimum population levels to drop too low and sets maximum mortality rates too high.

The plan "is not a blueprint for recovery, but a prescription for extinction," says Wayne Pacelle, national director of the Fund for Animals, a 250,000-member group based in Maryland.

Last December, the government released its plan to bring back self-sustaining populations of the grizzly across 38,000 square miles in five Western states (HCN, 12/27/93).

In January, 20 independent scientists, including grizzly bear experts Lance Craighead, Charles Jonkel and Lee Metzgar, asked Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to withdraw the plan. Regional directors of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club and Wilderness Society also asked Babbitt and Mollie Beattie, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to rescind the plan.

In response, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee wrote a 14-page letter to Babbitt. "This plan wasn't developed in a fog," says Chris Servheen, grizzly coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and lead author of the letter. "We've tried to minimize assumptions and have spent considerable time and effort coming up with our methods."

Yet Eric Glitzenstein, the lawyer representing the three environmental groups, says the plan's population monitoring system, based on annual sightings of female bears with cubs, doesn't accurately show how the bears are doing. Glitzenstein says the plan allows bears to be killed by humans at twice the rate the Fish and Wildlife Service's internal data reveals is appropriate. He also argues that the plan sets minimum population standards below the estimated population of bears in 1975, when the grizzly was listed as threatened.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is playing games with numbers in order to expedite the premature delisting of the grizzly bear," charges Keith Hammer, director of the Swan View Coalition.

"It's unfortunate that this sky-is-falling routine is being played out by the conservation community," responds Chris Servheen. The plan has distribution criteria which could require hundreds more bears than minimum population standards alone, he points out. Servheen also says the number of bears known to be killed by humans has dropped steadily in the Northern Continental Divide and Yellowstone recovery zones since conservation efforts began in 1981, and is already well below the 4 percent mortality allowed in the plan. "Our goal is zero percent mortality (from humans)."

Servheen agrees that the female-with-cubs monitoring system is not completely accurate, but says alternative methods "- such as trapping bears or monitoring the population indirectly by the size and quality of habitat - also have serious drawbacks. "What else can we do?" he asks. "No one has come up with a better method."

As for the environmentalists' charge that the Fish and Wildlife Service is rushing to get the bear off the endangered species list, Servheen says the recovery plan does not delist the bear. The agency has begun the delisting process only in the Northern Continental Divide recovery zone, which includes Glacier National Park, but the process will take many years, he says.

"We are trying to get the bear back on its feet, but we will never be able to walk away," Servheen says. "Every human action will have to be seriously considered as to its effect on bears."

But critics say the agency hasn't been vigilant enough in stopping human activities in grizzly bear habitat, and that the recovery plan will do little to change that.

Servheen says the recovery plan is not supposed to specify how grizzly habitat should be managed. Grizzly bear guidelines and interagency consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service protect bear habitat on a forest-by-forest basis.

Earlier this month, he notes, the Fish and Wildlife Service pressured the Forest Service into closing and obliterating 430 miles of road and reducing timber sales by 15 million board-feet on Idaho's Targhee National Forest.

But the Forest Service didn't consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service over the management of the Targhee until after they were sued by 11 environmental organizations, says Louisa Willcox, program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

The Targhee shows that habitat must be protected through the recovery plan, not just individual forest plans, she adds. More than 54 square miles of bear habitat in the Targhee was clearcut in the 1980s because the 1981 recovery plan lacked any specific protection measures, she says.

Environmentalists say that the new plan also allows logging and development to cut off potential bear-migration routes between recovery zones.

While it would be ideal to set up corridors linking the recovery zones, Servheen says, bears don't seem to move between zones now. The recovery plan calls for a five-year study to examine the possibility of establishing corridors, and the Fish and Wildife Service has asked other agencies to minimize development in these areas during the study.

That's not enough, says Dave Gaillard, bear coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "We're in a situation where (the Fish and Wildlife Service) could review the habitat and lose it at the same time."

Not all environmental groups think the plan does more harm than good. Representatives from the National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, Wyoming Wildlife Federation and others wrote a short letter to Babbitt and Beattie on Feb. 1, asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to aggressively implement the plan.

Two strong improvements in the current plan over the 1981 version, the letter says, are the reintroduction of Canadian grizzlies into the Bitterroot-Selway recovery zone, and habitat restoration in the North Cascades zone.

For more information about the lawsuit, contact D.J. Schubert, the Fund for Animals, 850 Sligo Ave., Suite 300, Silver Spring, MD 20910 (301/585-2591). For information about the recovery plan, contact Chris Servheen, USFWS, NS312, University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59821 (406/329-3223).

Craig Welch, a reporter with the Jackson Hole Guide, contributed to this report.

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