Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Congressional budget cuts may force the U.S. Geological Survey to abandon grizzly bear monitoring, which puts grizzly bear recovery in jeopardy.

On Wednesday, Claudia Regan, USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center director, stunned the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee with her brief but important announcement that the USGS probably needs to make big changes to grizzly bear research because of a lack of funding. For a committee that was celebrating its 40th anniversary and anticipating possible delisting decisions, it wasn’t good news.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee has depended on research conducted by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team to inform grizzly bear recovery in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. For example, the grizzly bear study team collected and analyzed data in 2014 on grizzly bear dependance on whitebark pine seeds as a critical food source and whether bears were threatened by the loss of whitebark pine stands due to climate-change-induced beetle kill.

The USGS focuses primarily on research. But through the past few decades, the USGS has led the grizzly bear study team doing both research and monitoring using a budget that was about 75% USGS appropriated money and 25% money that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reimbursed, Regan said.

However, in the past few years, the Fish and Wildlife Service had to reduce the amount of money it could reimburse. House Republicans have targeted the Fish and Wildlife Service for deep funding cuts partly to diminish the Endangered Species Act. A month ago, House Republicans passed a bill that would slash the agency’s endangered species program in fiscal year 2024 by nearly $26 million below current levels. And the current levels are lower than previous years due to successive cuts.

At the same time, while appropriations to the USGS haven’t been cut, they also haven’t increased.

“We all know a flat budget is a declining budget,” Regan said, referring to inflation and increasing demands. “I have found ways to absorb the effect of the flat budget, but we’re really out of options. This means we’re operating under a pretty substantive budget gap with USGS grizzly bear research.”

The USGS provided extra money to cover grizzly research in fiscal year 2023 and has promised the same for FY2024, but Regan said there’s a lot of uncertainty in that, so she’s not counting on it.

“So that just means we’re facing a very different fiscal future with the grizzly bear study team. A different fiscal future means that what we do and how we do it will have to change pretty dramatically. I think it’s important that you be aware of what we’re looking at and what the implications could be,” Regan said. “I’m expecting we’d have to pivot pretty dramatically in our research direction and that will impact our contributions to monitoring."

Regan couldn’t go into much more detail Wednesday but asked for a time slot during the executive committee’s spring meeting.

Executive Committee Chair Jim Fredericks said there was no question that time needed to be set aside at the next meeting to figure out how to fund the grizzly bear study team. Representatives of both the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem had both emphasized that their main priority was delisting. And delisting can’t occur if the population can’t be monitored.

“We need to consider if and how our individual organizations can affect that. Now is not the time for that,” Fredericks said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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