Grizzly bears entering the Bitterroot are protected under Endangered Species Act
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has notified supervisors of the Bitterroot, Nez-Perce-Clearwater, Lolo and Salmon-Challis National Forests informing them that grizzly bears present in the Bitterroot Grizzly Bear Experimental Population Area (BGBEPA) are protected under the Endangered Species Act. It also means that the forests would have to consult with the agency concerning potential impacts on the grizzlies where federal agency actions are proposed in an area that may impact the bears.
The question arose last year when the rules were changed concerning “experimental populations.” Since there was no established population in the Bitterroot recovery zone, some wondered whether the rules would affect or weaken protections for grizzlies if they ever established themselves in the Bitterroot. The grizzlies that were intended to be introduced into that area in the 2000s were designated an experimental population allowing public land managers more flexibility in handling the bears, but that project never happened.
What has changed now is the recognition that grizzlies are migrating into the area. In the January 21, 2020 letter to the Forests, USFWS officials refer to the collared bear that travelled into the Bitterroot from the Cabinet-Yaak recovery zone last summer.
“This grizzly bear was not released or reintroduced into the BGBEPA by the Service, and Service has not released or reintroduced any grizzly bears into the BGBEPA. Therefore, grizzly bears that are present in the BGBEPA are not covered by the 10(j) rule and are considered threatened under the ESA.”
The USFWS states that it is updating its species occurrence map with locations of where grizzly bears may be present within and near the BGBEPA and upon completion will provide that map to the Forest Service to use in determining where consultation over proposed projects is required.
David Smith in the USFS Regional office in Missoula said that the letter was simply clarifying that grizzly bears in the area are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. He said that it would not change anything essentially in the way the Forest Service operates.
“We already consult with USFWS on all our projects,” said Smith. He said in the case of grizzly bears, certain things like road construction and other activities could impact the bears’ behavior. He said his agency consults with USFWS on their projects about the potential impacts and if it is determined that the project activities had that potential they determine what actions could be taken to mitigate that impact.