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Grizzly bears still trapped in their own end zone

by By KEITH HAMMER
| February 20, 2024 7:00 AM

Contrary to Dale Jorgenson’s assertions in his Jan. 18, 2024 letter, “Grizzly bear population out of control,” we do not have “way too many grizzly bears in this country,” we are not “being over-run with grizzlies,” and we should not delist the grizzlies so we can “start hunting them again to thin out their numbers.” 

On the whole, grizzly bears are still limited to about 2% of their former numbers and 2% of their former range.

These are roughly the same conditions under which they were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. Under a return to Montana management and hunting, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem’s 1,163 bears will be allowed to decline to nearly 800!

As Paul Klug correctly notes in his Feb. 2, 2024 letter, “Human migration into Northwest Montana makes the current bear-population growth pale by comparison.” 

Indeed, the NCDE grizzly bear population of 1,163 bears is estimated to be increasing by 2.3% per year, while Flathead County’s population was estimated to have grown 3.7% in 2020 and reached 112,000 people in 2022. Kalispell’s population increased by 9.7% last year alone!

But the Flathead is only one of 12 counties in the NCDE. In total, they have a population of about 401,000 people. A human population 345 times greater than the bear population, increasing in places at a far higher annual rate, is not a good thing for either bears or people. 

Even we humans in NW Montana think it’s getting a little crowded around here as we struggle to find affordable housing – and the push is on to build more housing in bear habitat.

Both locals and visitors struggle as they attempt to get into Glacier National Park, let alone secure a reservation to camp there. Glacier received 2.9 million visitors each of the last two years. And the National Forests in the NCDE host over 3.3 million visitors each year as well, with the Flathead National Forest’s visitation increasing by two-thirds in the past decade! 

Do you suppose the bears forced to share these habitats think there are too many humans?

If we use a 100-yard football field as a graph to compare these numbers, the NCDE grizzly bear population is at their one-inch line. The human population in the NCDE reaches the 10-yard line, visitors to Glacier Park reach 70 yards downfield, and National Forest visitation surpasses that at 80 yards! 

Simply put, grizzly bears are still trying to get out of their own end zone while human population and visitation are each headed for a touchdown and cumulatively have already scored one.

I part company with Mr. Klug when his letter suggests grizzly bears should be delisted, can again be hunted, and uses Montana’s abhorrent “ten wolves per person” hunting season as an example of how to appease hunters. Montana continued to hunt grizzly bears in the NCDE even after they were listed as “threatened,” but the hunt was contributing to nearly half of all the known human-caused bear deaths. 

It was halted only after a successful lawsuit by conservation groups invoking the ESA. Now Montana wants grizzly bears delisted so it can get back to hunting them and drive them further back into their own end zone.

Population viability experts say 5,000 grizzly bears are needed, in interconnected populations, to maintain genetic diversity over the long term. Bears are no longer interbreeding between the NCDE and Yellowstone. Computer models have tried 20,000 times, unsuccessfully, to get a grizzly bear from the NCDE to Yellowstone. 

The bears on the ground haven’t made it yet either.

We need far more than the paltry 800 bears Montana promises it will maintain in the NCDE after delisting and enough secure habitat so they can expand their range into the areas between the ecosystem fragments. Managing for 800 bears in the Glacier area and even fewer in the Yellowstone area, while killing off “excess” bears via sport trophy hunting, will not reconnect these areas. It will not recover bears to significantly more than the 2% of their former habitat, let alone reconnect the NCDE to Yellowstone and other isolated ecosystems.

There is no clearer expression of a lack of faith in Montana to adequately manage the grizzly bear after delisting than from Montana itself. Its current plan to trap and truck NCDE grizzly bears to Yellowstone to maintain genetic diversity indicates Montana has no intention of allowing these two ecosystems to finish reconnecting naturally.

Congress passed the ESA to insure that threatened and endangered species would be able to compete with the selfish wants of humans. We in Montana are lucky to still have grizzly bears, unlike Arizona, New Mexico, California and the other “lower 48” states west of the Mississippi, where grizzly bears once thrived before being exterminated from 98% of their range. 

There are examples in Montana and elsewhere showing that people and grizzly bears can peacefully and safely coexist.

It is time to show some compassion and adjust how we live and work in bear habitat. We’re the ones crowding the bears and ourselves, not the other way around. 

Grizzly bears need the full protections of the ESA if we are to help them get out of their own end zone.

Keith Hammer lives near Bigfork and used to work for the Forest Service and as a logger. For the past 40 years he has worked for non-profit organizations to conserve fish and wildlife.