Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) A Western Montana environmental group this week notified both the federal government and the state of Montana that they must consider the effect of trapping on grizzly bear survival or face a lawsuit.

The Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue on Tuesday, alleging that too many grizzly bears are being maimed or killed by traps and snares in Montana.

“Under (Chapter 9 of the Endangered Species Act), it does not matter how many total animals are taken or how many are injured, any unpermitted takings are illegal,” the group wrote in its notice.

Grizzly bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required to evaluate situations that may cause a grizzly bear “taking,” which covers anything from harassment to death of a listed species. Based on the assessment, the Service must either prohibit a situation or calculate how many bears might be affected and issue an Incidental Take Permit that caps the allowable amount of take.

Several grizzlies have been maimed or killed as the result of Montana’s trapping season. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has never worked with the state to develop a conservation plan to prevent or at least reduce the harm to grizzly bears. Nor has it issued an incidental take permit that would be allowed by such a plan. Both steps are required by the Endangered Species Act.

“There is no Incidental Take Statement, no approved Conservation Plan and no Incidental Take Permit has been issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This inadequate regulatory mechanism must be fixed,” said Patty Ames, Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force president. “Our action would not prohibit trapping. It would require it to be done in a manner that does not result in the trapping, maiming and killing of grizzly bears who are trying to connect with other grizzly populations.”

The Task Force points out that grizzly bears in Montana are increasingly trying to move between recovery areas, and such migration is necessary for the genetic health of all populations. But there’s a greater chance of encountering traps outside of the recovery areas where human activity is more prevalent.

“Therefore, any voluntary actions by the State of Montana within Recovery Zones are insufficient both to prevent illegal unauthorized taking of grizzly bears and to prevent unauthorized illegal takings outside the Recovery Zones…” the notice concluded.

The 2021 Montana Legislature passed several bills increasing the length of season, types and uses of traps, snares and hunting aids to kill wolves and black bears. Trappers can now use neck snares in addition to leg-hold and Conibar body-squeezing traps.

However, recognizing that the new laws could threaten grizzly bears and lynx, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission placed limits on the new laws. In occupied grizzly habitat - much of western Montana - the wolf trapping season is delayed until FWP biologists say bears have gone into their dens. However, that doesn’t apply to Mineral, Ravalli, Beaverhead and parts of Missoula and Deer Lodge counties, areas where migrating grizzly bears have already been documented.

A federal court has ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to write a new environmental impact statement on grizzly recovery in the Bitterroot region because grizzlies are moving into the area.

The Task Force says the FWP commission’s limits don’t go far enough because grizzlies are moving into other areas and aren’t threatened just by wolf traps. Curious bears going after food can get toes caught in even small traps set for marten, and cubs can suffer more damage. The loss of toes or limbs can put even an adult bear that has to dig for roots and grubs at a disadvantage.

FWP reported that six grizzlies were caught in traps between 2012 and 2022, including one bear that was trapped in a wolf leg-hold trap. But there were other incidents known to FWP biologists where bears were released: Traps set for coyotes near Rogers Pass caught two grizzlies while grizzly bear toes were found in a bobcat trap in the upper Blackfoot Valley.

Scientific studies in British Columbia found about 7% of all grizzlies had missing front toes due mostly to sticking their front feet into marten Conibar traps. In Wyoming, at least four grizzly bears have recently been seen with injuries, including a grizzly with an amputated left foot and a female grizzly with cubs missing two front toes. In 2017, an adult grizzly was photographed with a Conibear trap clamped on its right front paw, and in 2015, a grizzly cub was caught in a Conibear trap set for marten.

Biologists know that for every reported incident, there’s likely another unreported incident, “due to the fact that many trappers will not report bycatch of threatened and endangered species,” according to the notice.

“The FWS has been aware that taking of grizzly bears by trap bycatch is common yet the true level of taking in Montana is not known because the FWP has taken no action to require an (incidental take statement) or (incidental take permit),” the notice said.

The Task Force requires the Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Montana to develop a grizzly bear conservation plan within 60 days and then the Service must issue an incidental take statement and permit. Otherwise, the group will ask the court for an injunction until the work is complete.

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