In letters sent to federal lawmakers and the Biden administration, numerous conservation organizations are calling for urgent executive and legislative action to bolster grizzly bear recovery, even as western lawmakers and officials seek to remove Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the threatened species.
The letters, sent to Congress, and the various secretaries of the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture and Transportation, rely primarily on a recent report compiled by grizzly bear biologist Dr. David J. Mattso, entitled “The Grizzly Bear Promised Land: Past, Present and Future of Grizzly Bears in the Bitterroot, Clearwater, Salmon & Selway Country.” In the report Mattson lays out the science supporting the need for increasing current grizzly bear populations and providing for and protecting the habitat and travel corridors that offer the opportunity for the intermingling of disparate populations into one biological unit that can be successful over the long term.
Dr. Mattson was one speaker among others at a press conference hosted last week by Gary Macfarlane, Ecosystem Defense Director of Friends of the Clearwater. Attendees included Elliot Moffett, President of the Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, Louisa Wilcox, Co-Founder of Grizzly Times, Adam Rissien, Rewilding Advocate, Wild Earth Guardians, Erik Molvar, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project and Michele Dietrich from Friends of the Bitterroot.
According to Mattson, the report addresses the question of what a “meaningful” recovery of the grizzly bear population in the U.S. would look like. That involves the question of what constitutes long term viability of the species.
“It is pretty unambiguous what the current scientific consensus is,” said Mattson. “We need far more than 2,000 grizzly bears.” He said the very minimum population of 2,000 that is being touted by some government agencies and many politicians is based on old science. But those numbers were based on the notion of an integrated population of bears, not one broken up into sub-populations that cannot interbreed as is currently the case. (see map)
Mattson believes that arriving at a long term successful population can be achieved by continuing the necessary protection of the bears under the Endangered Species Act as we help the bears increase their populations in the five existing population groups and develop safe lines of travel between the isolated groups.
What makes it all possible, according to Mattson, is the existence of the Bitterroot Grizzly Bear Recovery Area that has been identified covering a large swath of central and north central Idaho mostly in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness as comprising good grizzly bear habitat.
Louisa Wilcox, from the Grizzly Times, noted that former Head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dan Ash, talked 20 years ago about central Idaho being the “brass ring” for grizzly bear recovery. She said he recognized then that it could serve as the hub for connecting all the known grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains at the time. Now, she said, the grizzly bears themselves are showing us the way and we need to pay attention and help them out.
Mattson agrees. He notes the numbers of grizzlies that have been documented moving through the area.
Keeping the bears alive and protected under the Endangered Species Act while the bears really establish themselves is critical at this point, according to Mattson. He said what is making the current situation problematic was the constant narrative from USFWS and the state asserting that we have reached biological recovery levels.
“It’s an incessant narrative coming from the agencies and the state, but it is not supported by the current scientific consensus,” he said. He said the science suggests that grizzly bears, with their low reproductive rates typical of many large mammals, need 2,500 to 9,000 individuals in the U.S. and the connections between those populations for the species to achieve long-term viability.
Macfarlane said that Congress has a key role to play in grizzly recovery efforts. In their letter to Congress, the groups encouraged them to support and pass legislation such as the Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act (H.R. 2532) that limits killing or harassing grizzly bears and prioritizes working with Tribes who agree to reintroduce grizzlies on Tribal lands; the Tribal Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act (S. 1499, H.R. 2795) that conserves and restores landscape linkages to aid the movement of species, such as grizzly bears, at risk due to habitat loss and fragmentation; and the Tribal Wildlife Corridors Act (S. 2891, H.R. 5179) that empowers Tribes to nominate an area as a tribal wildlife corridor to provide habitat or ecological connectivity to provide safe passage for a range of species, including grizzly bears.
Elliot Moffett, President of Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment on the Nez Perce Reservation, said that the efforts to recover the grizzly bear were in line with the recognition of treaty rights across the nation. The former Tribal Council member and now non-profit director said that grizzly bear recovery was in keeping with treaty rights. He said that the tribes were left in charge of taking care of Mother Earth and all the diversity of plants and animals. He said their land management focus was shifting from managing hunters and harvests to managing for a diversity of species. He said the tribe was working on recognition of the rights of Nature and recognizing that the Snake River has its own rights.
Adam Rissien of WildEarth Guardians, said that one thing that Congress and the U.S. Forest Service could do to help protect habitat and travel corridors for grizzlies would be to give it some consideration in the national forest plans that are being revised across the Rocky Mountain West. He said a number of revisions have been initiated and some are close to completion but none of them contain language that would protect core grizzly bear habitat and they lack safeguards for corridors that bears need to reach new areas.
In their letter to Secretary Vilsack at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the groups urge the agency to take action to initiate a process to amend all land management plans with suitable grizzly bear habitat to identify key large habitat linkage areas for protection and set some relevant standards such as limits on motorized and mechanical route density and set secure habitat thresholds within linkage areas. They also advocate standards for food security in forest camping and the restriction of black bear baiting as well as advocating for livestock co-existence measures.
Jocelyn Leroux of Western Watersheds Project said that the leading cause of grizzly mortality is conflict with private livestock on public land and one good way to address it was through a voluntary grazing permit retirement program in which private permit holders are compensated for retiring their permit.
“Reducing grizzly-livestock conflict through win-win voluntary livestock permit retirement can ensure grizzlies can re-occupy key linkage areas to finally establish in core habitat in the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem,” said Leroux.
The groups urge Secretary of the Department of Transportation to make wildlife crossings throughout the West a priority for funding, either through existing funding mechanisms built into appropriations or through requests from the Administration to Congress for dedicated funds. They claim the wildlife crossings are proven effective and are critical to grizzly bear recovery. The most important areas and roads to focus on for grizzly bear recovery identified were mostly major transportation corridors typified by heavily-trafficked highways and higher densities of human occupancy – notably along the Highway 2/Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) corridor through the Continental Divide and Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystems; the Highway 200/Montana Rail Link corridor along the southwestern margin of the Cabinet Mountains; Highway 93 through Flathead, Mission, and Bitterroot valleys along the west side of the NCDE and east side of the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem; and, most especially, Interstate Highway 90, separating the Northern Continental Divide, Cabinet-Yaak, and Selkirk Ecosystems to the north from the Greater Yellowstone and the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystems in the south.
“We are calling on Congress to pass a holistic legislative package to secure the grizzly bear’s future, one that will protect crucial habitat and provide bears safe passage as they move throughout their original range,” said Macfarlane. “In the past, lawmakers introduced a number of favorable bills that would help grizzly bears, and we also remind Congress that it has the power to protect grizzly habitat by designating forest lands as Wilderness, which brings stronger protections under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Finally, Congress can set a tone for grizzly recovery by prioritizing and funding coexistence measures. By combining executive action and legislative action, we can rise to the challenge of securing a future for the grizzly bear. With increasing threats, the time to act is now.”