Federal officials are trying to remove Endangered Species Act protections for grizzly bears. (Credit: NPS)

Grizzlies Endangered by State Politics

Idaho, Montana and Wyoming officials are gunning for the Yellowstone area bears’ recovery plan

Reprinted from the Jackson Hole News & Guide on Aug. 10, 2016.

As federal officials push forward with their proposal to strip Endangered Species Act protections from grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone area, the three states that would assume oversight of the grizzlies are advocating the elimination of many of the science-based recovery guidelines that leading scientists say are critical to ensure the bear’s continued recovery into the next century.

In response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly delisting proposal released in March, officials in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are pushing back hard, suggesting the current population of more than 700 bears should be allowed to drop as low as 600, as opposed to maintaining a population objective of approximately 674 bears as the service suggests. At the same time the states insist that monitoring of the population should be limited to just five years instead of ongoing monitoring as envisioned by the service’s current plan.

In fact the wish list the states hope will water down the service’s final delisting rule makes a strong case for precisely why grizzlies need the continued protection of the Endangered Species Act.

Among the more scientifically troubling suggestions made by the states include interpreting the service’s limits of the number of female grizzlies that can be killed as “guidance” rather than mandatory; elimination of a section calling for state coordination with federal and tribal bear managers; and severely limiting the application of the service’s plan to just five years, and by removing almost all substantive protections.

And in a troubling rejection of scientists’ call for greater connectivity between the region’s highly fragmented grizzly populations to allow greater genetic exchange, the states want to do away with any mention of the issue.

The same states already putting trophy hunting plans in place want no mention of hunting in the plan, and they want any restriction on trapping grizzlies removed.

State regulators, of course, will assert that asking for these sections to be removed from the delisting proposal does not mean the states will not follow those guidelines — but it would eliminate any written suggestion that they should follow them, opening the door to the kind of politically driven free-for-all that has guided the same states’ unscientific management of delisted wolf populations.

Perhaps most concerning is the states’ attempts to weaken the service’s authority to initiate relisting in the face of significant changes in state management, the ultimate tool to make the states accountable for maintaining a healthy population.

All we can hope is that the service does not bend to these state demands as it has done in rushing this delisting process.

For myriad reasons many leading scientists say this is not the time to drop federal protections and turn over grizzly management to states anxious to sanction seasonal bear hunts.

Perhaps most immediately worrisome is a spike in grizzly deaths in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem: Last year 61 grizzly deaths were recorded, the most in decades. That follows 28 in 2014, 29 in 2013, 56 in 2012 and 44 in 2011. Additionally, the isolated state of the grizzly bear population remains troublesome for scientists who recognize the potential for genetic health issues in the future, despite the states’ insistence on ignoring the science on the issue.

And researchers studying the climate-change driven decrease in traditional grizzly food sources fear that the recent increase in human-caused bear mortalities could rise even more as bears search for new food sources that increase their potential for conflict.

The scientific evidence is strong that grizzly bears are facing a bevy of emerging threats that scientists are only beginning to fully understand, and the best way to ensure the ongoing recovery of a sustainable, regional grizzly bear population is to maintain Endangered Species Act protections.

The states’ highly politicized ideas about what constitutes responsible grizzly oversight leaves no doubt — if we hand management of these national treasures over to state regulators, the future for grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone is at great risk.

Andrea Santarsiere is a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Victor, Idaho, office, where her work focuses on protecting carnivores.