Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) An environmental group is preparing to sue the state of Montana and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the state’s plan to truck grizzly bears between the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems.

On Tuesday, the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue to stop the state’s plan to capture grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and transport them to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The plan is an effort to establish gene flow between the two populations, something that must exist to ensure the Yellowstone population doesn’t become inbred over the long term.

Missoula federal district judge Dana Christensen ruled that the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears could not be delisted until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could ensure connectivity. At the behest of the states of Wyoming and Idaho, Montana came up with the translocation plan to eliminate that barrier to delisting.

Scientists calculate that two to four female bears must migrate and successfully mate each decade to preserve genetic diversity within the populations.

However, the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force says that trapping and transporting grizzly bears is like harassment and is therefore a “taking” of a threatened species. The Task Force says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should have carried out an environmental assessment at a minimum before allowing such a taking.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has said that grizzly bears removed from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem will be recorded as NCDE mortalities, just like they are when they’re used to augment the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem. However, while the grizzly bears transplanted to the Cabinet-Yaak are still considered threatened species, FWP Wildlife Chief Ken MacDonald has been quoted as saying that grizzly bears transplanted to the Yellowstone ecosystem will be considered “experimental” so they will not have federal protection.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t taken any position on the augmentation plan, but the state of Montana is moving ahead, having hired staff to carry out the trapping and translocations. Wildlife officials intend to move the bears as soon as mid-June, but no later than mid-August to avoid causing problems with denning.

“The idea of capturing, drugging and trucking grizzly bears to an unfamiliar and already occupied habitat instead of fostering natural movements is absurd,” said Patty Ames, Task Force president. “This plan is purely political, and there has been no scientific analysis in support of it, nor disclosure of potential impacts on the NCDE source population or the likelihood of success versus natural connectivity. It’s a cop-out on habitat connectivity and true grizzly bear recovery.”

The Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force says that ensuring natural migration is preferable to translocation, for several reasons including cost. But so far, several barriers, including towns, subdivisions and Interstate Highway 90, have hampered successful migration between the two ecosystems.

FWP biologists have said bears from the two ecosystems will eventually connect naturally. But if grizzlies are delisted, it may take longer, because Montana’s proposed grizzly bear management plan doesn’t protect grizzlies outside of the ecosystem boundaries. Grizzlies trying to migrate between ecosystems could face a more challenging gauntlet once they’re delisted and the state has control.