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Bearing witness

by Duncan Adams Western News
| March 3, 2020 10:26 AM

Grizzly bear biologist Wayne Kasworm said wildlife officials promised Lincoln County residents in the late 1980s that any grizzlies transplanted to augment the small population of bears in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem would have no history of conflict with humans.

Kasworm, a Libby-based employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said officials promised too that the augmentation effort would proceed slowly.

Both of those promises have been kept, Kasworm said during a Feb. 26 meeting in Libby of the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council.

Kasworm said 22 bears captured elsewhere had been added to the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem grizzly population since 1990. He said estimates suggest there are now 50 to 60 grizzlies in the recovery zone, with roughly half of those bears in the Cabinet Mountains and the other half in the Yaak.

The target population of grizzlies for the Cabinet-Yaak is about 100 animals, Kasworm said.

Connectivity remains an issue, he said, with little evidence of movement of grizzlies within those two sub-populations or with other grizzly bear recovery areas, including the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. The sprawling NCDE includes Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, four other federally-designated wilderness areas and portions of five national forests.

As a result, Kasworm said, concerns remain about a lack of genetic diversity in the Cabinet-Yaak recovery area.

He said DNA testing revealed that one dominant male grizzly in the region, a bear that is now dead, bred with his daughters and granddaughters.

The meeting in Libby was the fifth for the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council. Past meetings have been held in East Helena, Bozeman, Missoula and Polson. Three more meetings, in Choteau, Red Lodge and Dillon, are planned.

The council is supposed to submit recommendations to Gov. Steve Bullock in August.

All but one of the council’s 18 members participated in the Libby meeting. Carolyn Byrd, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, was absent.

Other attendees of the Feb. 26 meeting included State Sen. Mike Cuffe and State Rep. Steve Gunderson, both Republicans. The men told the council they favor delisting grizzlies as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grizzly in the Lower 48 in 1975 as a threatened species.

Cuffe asked Kasworm whether the target population in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem of 100 grizzlies is the right number to shoot for. Cuffe said the region’s already struggling economy takes a hit when, as he put it, every timber sale and every copper mine ends up in litigation, often because of alleged impacts of the projects on grizzlies.

Controversy continues about whether to delist the bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, where advocates for delisting contend the population of bears in each zone has met recovery targets.

Estimates suggest there are about 1,000 grizzlies in the NCDE and about 700 in the GYE.

In July 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the grizzly in the GYE. But in Sept. 2018 a federal judge restored Endangered Species Act protections for this population. The judge noted, among other things, that the Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to adequately analyze how delisting the bear in the GYE would affect grizzlies in other recovery zones.

Opponents of delisting grizzlies contend that there’s not sufficient connectivity between the populations to ensure genetic diversity and that the bears’ low reproductive capacity makes trophy hunting a threat to the grizzlies’ ongoing recovery.

Proponents of delisting suggest the grizzlies are now recovered in the NCDE and GYE and that a limited hunt outside of national parks could help reduce conflicts with humans and livestock and also raise money through license sales to support bear management if and when the states assume that role.

Kasworm said efforts to support connectivity between the grizzlies in the Cabinet Mountains and those in the Yaak Valley have included acquiring conservation easements and land in areas that evidence shows serve as wildlife corridors.

But connectivity with other recovery zones is limited, he said.

His presentation to the council suggested grizzlies are not getting to the Cabinets “except in the back of a pickup truck.”

Kasworm said a reduction in human-caused mortality could boost recovery efforts in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.

Kim Annis, a Libby-based wildlife management specialist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, briefed council members on efforts to reduce human-bear conflicts in the region.

She said people who raise chickens often discover that the fowl and their feed can attract grizzlies.

Later, during a two-hour period set aside for public comment, a Libby woman told the council about a grizzly that had killed her chickens and otherwise left her fearful enough on her 20 acres to ultimately move into town.

“I don’t want to find out how I look in orange because I have to shoot one,” she said.

Meanwhile, Scott Jackson, National Carnivore Program leader for the U.S. Forest Service, reminded council members of the multiple-use mission of the Forest Service. The agency must try to meet the demands of varied interests, he said, ranging from timber and mining companies to motorized recreation enthusiasts to backpackers and kayakers and ranchers who graze livestock in the summers on public lands.

The Forest Service collaborates with the Fish and Wildlife Service and with Fish, Wildlife and Parks to try to create conditions conducive to grizzly bear recovery, Jackson said.

Bullock created the Grizzly Bear Council in 2019 in response to grizzly bear populations increasing in some parts of the bears’ range. The bruins’ expanded territory has resulted in an increase in conflicts with people and in livestock depredation in some areas. New subdivisions and other development in grizzly habitat have also created management challenges for wildlife personnel.

The governor’s council includes 18 volunteers with varied backgrounds, ranging from cattle ranchers to conservationists, from guest ranchers to scientists.

The council’s objectives include identifying strategies and polices for:

- Maintaining and enhancing human safety

- Ensuring a healthy, sustainable grizzly population

- Improving responses to conflicts involving grizzlies

- Engaging partners in grizzly-related outreach and conflict prevention

- Improving intergovernmental, interagency and tribal coordination.

Several council members said during the Feb. 26 meeting that the group has a lot of work to do between now and August.

More information about the council, including meeting summaries and presentation slides from previous meetings, can be found at fwp.mt.gov/gbac.