Grizzly bear: States aim for 2014 delisting date | TSLN.com

Grizzly bear: States aim for 2014 delisting date

Heather Hamilton
for Tri-State Livestock News

As cattle and sheep head to summer pasture, many producers remain concerned about predator management and associated losses. In the case of the grizzly bear, no major changes are expected in 2013, but states continue to work with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to revise the conservation strategy, which is the broad umbrella setting forth management parameters. These revisions utilize the most current information available on the grizzly bear population and will be incorporated into the document following public review.

"The bottom line issue with grizzly bears is that when the USFWS delisted grizzly bears in 2007, a coalition of environmental groups sued, claiming the USFWS did not adequately assess impacts associated with loss of white bark pine and there were not adequate regulatory mechanisms in place to ensure conservation of bears post-delisting," explained Wyoming Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott of what lead to the current situation with the grizzly bear.

The court ruled that, in fact, there were adequate plans in place to manage grizzlies post-delisting, but found in favor of the plaintiffs concerning analyses of white bark pine effects. As a result, the bear was relisted, and state officials in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming began reevaluating and assimilating existing information to respond to the court's concerns.

"States, and those of us on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Management Committee, put our efforts together and have been going back and reevaluating all the grizzly bear data we have – 30 years' worth, in addition to all the white bark pine data, which has been collected for a long period of time as well. The Yellowstone grizzly bear population is literally the most studied bear population in the world, so we have an abundance of high quality data to work with," explained Talbott.

The goal of reevaluating the data is to statistically prove that the grizzly bear population continues to thrive regardless of the status of white bark pine, which is very cyclic in nature. Talbott said that some years the white bark produces abundant seeds providing a plentiful food source and bears do very well on them, but there are also years when they produce almost no seeds despite the tree being very robust, and bear populations are not affected as a result. The plaintiffs claimed that the white bark pine was declining due to the bark beetle and to a specific type of tree rust, and that the USFWS had not completed adequate assessments of how that would affect grizzly bears.

"We are reviewing this data now, and should have analysis completed by this fall. It will then be peer reviewed, hopefully by October or November of this year. Then, when all that information is published, we plan to move forward with delisting of the grizzly by about October of 2014. That's the schedule we're on right now," explained Talbott.

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Upon being delisted, management of the grizzly bear will shift from the federal government to individual western states under the umbrella of the conservation strategy.

"We are working to amend the conservation strategy, which is basically a management agreement between Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the U.S. Forest Service, and the USFWS that lays out all the management parameters by which we will manage the grizzly bear," Talbott stated.

Many of the parameters will be based on mortality thresholds, which are currently set at 15 percent for independent males and nine percent for independent sows with cubs.

"Other management parameters include annual survivorship of females, the manner and how females with cubs of the year are counted, the distribution of these females with cubs across the ecosystem, and the area in which mortalities will be applied to each of the established thresholds," noted Talbott of the very technical science behind the data that will be used in the conservation strategy.

Under the current conservation strategy, bears in isolated locations are not factored into the overall population estimate. However, if removed from the population due to conflicts, they do count toward annual mortality thresholds. Under the revised strategy, bears that expand into isolated areas with high conflict potential and little chance of contributing genetically to the population may be removed without counting toward annual mortality thresholds.

In the meantime, the states and private citizens will continue to deal with a healthy bear population that continues to increase and expand in most environments in western Wyoming, regardless of the status of white bark pine.

"The conservation strategy contains many scientific parameters and management information, but all most people really want to know is if we are going to get the grizzly bear delisted. The answer is yes, but not this year," concluded Talbott.