Grizzlies recovered, moving toward delisting
The move toward removing grizzly bears from the endangered species list is waiting for the outcome of ongoing litigation, despite the fact that the population is fully recovered.
“The estimate for the core population for 2012 is 593 bears – that is in the recovery zone and surrounding area,” said Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) bear management specialist Mark Bruscino. “The population is probably considerably larger than that – probably around 700 to 900 bears in the entire Greater Yellowstone Area.”
“Biologically, the population has recovered and met all recovery goals,” adds Bruscino. “The grizzly bear population has continued to grow at between four and seven percent each year for the last 15 years.”
The current method of estimating the Yellowstone grizzly bear population involves counting unduplicated sow grizzly bears with cubs-of-the-year and using statistical analysis of data to estimate total bear numbers.
Another method being evaluated is a mark-recapture technique, described by Deputy Director of the WGFD John Emmerich at the Aug. 26 meeting of the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee.
A basic assumption of the mark-recapture technique is that all bears are equally observable.
“We mark most of the bears in the front country, yet see very few marked bears in the back country. Is that because marked bears make up such a small portion of the population so they are not observed compared to unmarked bears, or because front country bears are not using back country areas?” asked Emmerich. “We are not sure, so the basic assumption needs to be evaluated before this technique can be used with any confidence. ”
While the state has also investigated a modified mark-recapture technique that utilizes hair samples which are assigned to individual bears through DNA analysis, the labor intensive, very expensive approach has not been pursued due to lack of funding commitments from potential partners.
Emmerich also reported that the current conservation strategy calls for managing the Yellowstone grizzly population above 500 animals, a level that current conservative population estimates indicate is exceeded by at least 100 bears.
Emmerich, in reviewing the history of the grizzly bear recovery effort, says, “The grizzly bear was listed as threatened in 1975, two years after the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973.”
“From the late 1970s, the WGFD has been very involved in grizzly bear recovery efforts in terms of managing damage, monitoring bear numbers and managing mortality, all of which have been instrumental in the recovery,” says Emmerich.
“By 1999, all the demographic objectives had been met,” Emmerich continues. “The number of females with cubs-of-the-year we were seeing in our counts, and the distribution of bears in the bear management areas, had met established recovery objectives.”
Emmerich explains that all the planning documents were in place for habitat protection and for conserving grizzly bears by 2003. However, before the move to delisting can take place, litigation must be resolved.
“Litigation is over two issues – the adequacy of the science around the importance of white bark pine nuts to the long-term recover of grizzly bears, and the adequacy of regulatory mechanisms that will govern grizzly bear management,” explains Bruscino. “The case is currently appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco, Calif. ,and we are awaiting a decision.”
The appeal hearing occurred six months ago as a result of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appeal to Judge Donald Molloy’s decision. Molloy sided with a coalition of environmental groups on the two issues in a Missoula, Mont. hearing.
“All the management agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, disagree with Judge Molloy’s ruling,” says Emmerich. “There are adequate regulatory mechanisms, and the reduction of the white bark pine is not a major factor in the long-term survival of grizzly bears.”
“If we completely succeed in the litigation, then we will move toward delisting within a few months,” comments Bruscino. “We are looking forward to a decision, and we hope to have one sometime by early 2012.”
With an increased number of bears, some conflict with livestock and humans is seen. Conflicts with bears are affected short-term by the amount of annual, natural food available and long-term by the trend in bear numbers and distribution, says Bruscino.
“I would call this year an average year for the number of conflicts we saw,” says Bruscino. “However, last year was our worst year ever and that was in light of a really poor natural food year. This year was a pretty good natural food year, and we see the number of conflicts go down pretty significantly when food is available.”
“Over the long-term, we have seen an increase in conflicts as bears recolonize multiple use lands outside of Yellowstone Park and in the core wilderness areas,” notes Bruscino. “We have also seen an increase in livestock and property damage conflicts.”
The long-term trends are also affected by bears living in a lot of “highly-managed landscapes,” according to Bruscino, who notes those areas see high recreational and agriculture use, as well as industry use.
As Wyoming and the WGFD continue to wait for a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court, the WGFD has developed a considerable education program to help people prevent or manage conflicts, as well as prevent conflict through bear-proof installations.
The Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is one of five grizzly bear populations in the northwest that is being recovered, including the northern Continental Divide population and three others that spread into northern Idaho and Washington.
Emmerich says, “The Greater Yellowstone population is one that has met all recovery goals. It is time to delist and return management responsibility to state wildlife agencies.”
Saige Albert is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.