WHEN IT COMES TO TRUE RECOVERY FOR AMERICA’S MOST FAMOUS BRUINS, THE FOCUS IS NOT ON NUMBERS BUT BIOLOGICAL CONNECTIVITY
As the winter Solstice arrived in late December, just 10 days shy of the end of 2018, the US Fish and Wildlife Service gave notice that it may appeal a September federal court ruling that overturned removal of Endangered Species Act protections from the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population.
That ruling, issued by US District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula, Montana, put Yellowstone-area grizzlies back under federal protection. The case was brought to court by a coalition of Native American tribes and conservation groups.
While the Constitutionally-guaranteed right to challenge government decisions in court is a cornerstone of freedom, making policy via the courts is inherently limiting. Wading through the ruling’s 48 pages of legalese might expand your vocabulary, but you probably won’t come away with a clear understanding of where grizzly conservation in contiguous states is headed.
A court decision can only deal with what’s in the law, the arguments that the litigants raise, and with previous court decisions. While authoritative, the constraints of the judicial system don’t allow for a rich, creative dialogue among people with different points of view about the survival of large carnivores. To have that kind of future-shaping discussion, people need to step outside the rigidity of the courtroom, and reckon with what it means to share our region with grizzlies.
Judge Christensen’s decision speaks to three major issues. Of those, two stand out, and are intertwined like the double helix of a DNA molecule: the issue of the Yellowstone grizzly population’s isolation from any other grizzlies is the first, and the requirement that the Fish and Wildlife Service carefully analyze how delisting this geographically isolated population will affect the other threatened grizzly populations in the lower 48. (The third issue, involving the selection of statistical methods for estimating the grizzly population, i.e. counting bears, is important but not as momentous as the other two).
In many respects, though this court case was superficially all about Greater Yellowstone’s grizzlies, the judge’s ruling could carry equal significance for another grizzly bear recovery zone: central Idaho’s presumably vacant Bitterroot Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone.
Central Idaho was once superlative grizzly habitat, with thriving salmon runs, abundant berries, and plentiful whitebark pine seeds. Unfortunately, the grizzlies were wiped out by 1932, and the salmon runs have been devastated by downstream dams and overfishing. Whitebark pine has dwindled away due to a non-native fungus and climate-driven outbreaks of beetles. Still, this amazing chunk of country has what grizzlies need to thrive: remote, wild space where there will be few conflicts with us.
The Bitterroot Ecosystem was officially identified as a recovery zone in 1975, when Lower 48 grizzlies were protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In the intervening decades, there has been no conclusive evidence of grizzlies in the area, yet a few grizzlies have come tantalizing close.
In the 1990s, the Fish and Wildlife Service plan was to transplant grizzlies from other healthy populations into central Idaho. Still brooding over the high-profile reintroduction of wolves into Greater Yellowstone and central Idaho, conservative politicians mobilized against the proposal, rallying opposition and cutting off funding. With the inauguration of President George W. Bush in 2001, the reintroduction plan went into dormancy, where it remains today.
Reintroduction could still happen, though there are stronger arguments in favor of simply letting grizzlies walk to the Bitterroot on their own. First, reintroductions are controversial, as both the mid-1990s wolf reintroduction and the stalled Bitterroot grizzly plan demonstrate. And for all that controversy and expense, trucking grizzlies to central Idaho could very well create yet another isolated population that would need constant intervention to stay viable.
Ecologically, a gradual process of letting grizzlies expand into the Bitterroot from Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide (which includes Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness) would allow bears to adapt to an unfamiliar habitat over a few bear generations, rather than being plucked from familiar environs and dropped off in new country 100 or more miles away.
Grizzly bears are already moving toward the Bitterroot; still, we can’t divine where their wanderings will ultimately take them. They are moving south along the spine of the Sapphire Range from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem; they have appeared in the upper Big Hole Valley, within 50 miles of the Bitterroot’s official boundary. And Greater Yellowstone’s grizzlies continue to push westward, in a direction that could put them on course to reach central Idaho.
It’s this latter Greater Yellowstone connection that is particularly intriguing: currently, the grizzlies of the world’s first national park are utterly isolated from others of their kind. Although this population has made a remarkable comeback over the past 50 years, isolation still poses threats. Besides the well-known threat of an inadequate gene pool, barriers to connectivity can also prevent these bears from spreading out and adapting in response to changes in their natural food sources.
Greater Yellowstone grizzlies have already experienced the loss of some key foods, most notably the climate-change driven loss of whitebark pine from much of the ecosystem. About the only alternative foods that have similar nutritional value to whitebark seeds are ones that get grizzlies into deadly trouble: big game meat (problematic because they’re competing with hunters for it) and livestock (because they are someone’s property and livelihood).
These grizzlies need the wild freedom to adapt by recolonizing unoccupied habitat. They need to re-connect with other grizzlies so they can thrive as one big, robust population. And through that process, we can keep the promise made 44 years ago to recover grizzlies in central Idaho, too.
Judge Christensen’s ruling makes it very clear that the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to ponder the re-connection question: the decision clearly insists on a meaningful plan to address the threat of isolation to the Greater Yellowstone population, and calls for careful consideration of how delisting this population will affect grizzly recovery elsewhere in the Lower 48.
Consider these key points above alongside 44 years of inertia on restoring grizzlies to the Bitterroot: reconnection is the obvious path forward. It would address Yellowstone’s isolation, help grizzlies recolonize the Bitterroot, and compellingly show that the agencies are considering all of the lower 48 grizzlies, not just one population split off from the rest.
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After Judge Christensen delivered his decision, it was appealed by the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho as well as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association, all of which have supported the restoration of trophy hunting of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies.
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