In late October of 2018, a young male grizzly bear was trapped by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on a golf course in Stevensville, Montana. This unusual, incident came as a surprise to many because this bear was relatively far from one of the six recovery zones designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Where this bear originated is currently unknown, but it is likely he moved south out of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). Rather than release him on public lands close to where he was found, such as the Bitterroot National Forest, the decision was made to take him back to the NCDE. This move brought to light the urgent need for agencies involved in grizzly bear recovery to make connectivity between bear populations a planning priority so that when bears do show up in new areas, wildlife management officials have better options at their disposal of where to release bears to benefit — not prevent — connectivity between populations.
The Stevensville bear was captured in an area between the NCDE and Bitterroot Ecosystem recovery zones. A plan to reintroduce grizzlies to the Bitterroot Ecosystem was approved in 2000, but then immediately shelved by the new G.W. Bush administration. Though recovery remains the goal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the likelihood of approval for a new reintroduction effort is very low, so for now actions are needed that support natural recovery of grizzlies to the Bitterroot Ecosystem from the NCDE and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) grizzly bear populations on their own. Most often, young males make such long journeys. For natural recovery of a viable population, females must also be able to occupy and establish home ranges between these ecosystems. Because females often establish home ranges adjacent to or near their mother’s home range, expansion is slow. Natural recovery of the Bitterroot will take time and substantial effort to minimize mortality of those bears that do show up. At this time, most bears that are known to have made progress towards the Bitterroot have either died or been moved back to another ecosystem. Given such challenges, it is easy to feel bleak about the possibility for a viable population of grizzly bears in the Bitterroot. However, there is cause for optimism and investment in this vision.
For one, grizzly bears continue to show up in places they have not been seen in decades and that alone should be celebrated! It is evidence that not only does the Endangered Species Act work, but that the decades of hard work put in by those living with bears, agencies and the conservation community has been worth it. Now it is time to move the vision of recovery forward with strategic action that will enhance connectivity between populations and facilitate natural recovery of the Bitterroot ecosystem.
The NCDE and the GYE have the two largest grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states. In Montana, multiple grizzly bears have been confirmed outside of recovery zone boundaries, in areas between ecosystems. This is exciting news for some and worrisome for others. Listening to support, as well as to concerns, is essential to developing a way forward where bears and people can both benefit.
So, what are we doing? Defenders is tackling the issues surrounding grizzly bear recovery and connectivity using a multi-faceted approach that integrates advocacy and policy with on-the-ground work in local communities.
Preventing Conflicts between People and Bears
The NCDE grizzly bear population is having a record year — for mortality. Approximately 51 known grizzly bear deaths have been documented, with the largest sources of mortality being bears hit and killed on roads and management removals. In human-developed landscapes, moving through livestock pastures, passing through backyards and by attractants such as garbage, fruit trees, and chicken coops all lead bears into trouble with people. Bears do this while also traveling across major highways, interstates and busy roads. It is a real-life game of Frogger.
In the early 1990’s, to address concerns from those living with bears and grizzly bear management mortalities, Defenders developed our grizzly bear coexistence program. Since then, we have invested over $700,000 on over 350 on-the-ground projects that prevent conflicts between bears and people. These projects range from bear-resistant electric fence installation to bear-resistant garbage storage, range rider programs, and more. We work closely with state, federal, and tribal agencies, the conservation community and residents to get this work done. These projects directly address conflicts where they occur by implementing tools and techniques that prevent the conflict and minimize grizzly bear mortality. Here is more information about our most popular program, our electric fencing incentive program. By giving local communities tools they need to prevent conflicts with grizzly bears, we strive to create social awareness and tolerance or acceptance for grizzly bears on the landscape.
Securing Public Lands
Grizzly bears need large swaths of secure habitat. In grizzly bear country, much of that high value habitat is found on federal public lands like national parks and national forests, so how federal lands are managed is vital to bears’ success. National forests are particularly vulnerable due to ongoing logging, roadbuilding, and motorized use on those lands, but national forest lands play a key role in connecting bear populations. To ensure that grizzly bears have sufficient core and connectivity habitat on national forests, Defenders’ federal lands team is heavily involved in shaping the revision of national forest management plans throughout grizzly bear country in Montana. For example, we are pressing the U.S. Forest Service to include strong habitat security and connectivity measures for NCDE grizzly bears within updated plans for the Flathead, Kootenai, Helena-Lewis and Clark, and Lolo national forests. We are advocating for similar conservation actions for GYE grizzly bears within the Custer-Gallatin national forest management plan. Because national forests play such a fundamental role in connecting grizzly bear populations, it is imperative that the U.S. Forest Service adopt habitat security measures strong enough to support long term grizzly bear occupancy and movement in areas in-between ecosystems, such as the Big Belts on the Helena-Lewis and Clark national forest which could provide central stepping stones for bears as they move between the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems.
Being an Advocate for Grizzly Bears
Defenders advocates for state and federal policies that secure a future for grizzly bears. For example, we submitted comments in support of Montana’s proposal to keep grizzly bear hunting off the table in 2018 and in opposition to the states of Wyoming and Idaho proposals to begin grizzly bear hunting in 2018 because mortalities are high in the Yellowstone ecosystem without additional hunting mortality. We also continue to send a consistent message to state and federal agencies that it is imperative that firm commitments to connectivity are included in policies moving forward. For example, we asked Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to commit to providing for connectivity within their Grizzly Bear Administrative Rule proposal. At the December 10th Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting, the Commission approved the Departments’ proposal without including commitments to connectivity. This was disappointing but unfortunately, not surprising. If Montana moves forward with creation of a statewide grizzly bear management plan as stated in their response to comments, we will continue this discussion there. In addition, following the arrival of the grizzly bear on the Stevensville, Montana golf course, Defenders asked the Interagency Grizzly Bear Bitterroot Subcommittee how the agencies would go about establishing protocols so that bears that show up in-between ecosystems can stay in-between ecosystems. Protocols must be established that, when appropriate, allow for the release of such bears closer to where they are captured in linkage areas outside of recovery zones. Always taking bears back to recovery zones will diminish the chance for bears to reestablish within historic habitat. We were encouraged to hear at the NCDE Interagency Grizzly Bear Subcommittee meeting in Missoula, Montana on November 20 that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has begun the process to get such protocols in place.
This last year was a roller coaster of policy decisions for grizzly bears. We anticipate another busy year in 2019 and stand prepared to work towards science-based, conservation-minded policies that provide a future for grizzly bears. We are witnessing the comeback of the grizzly bear, a majestic and awe-inspiring symbol of the west, but it is up to us. Can we make room for their return?