Lolo, Flathead, Kootenai, Helena: Grizzly bears the focus of forest plan amendments

As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers whether to remove grizzlies from the list of protected species, it must ensure the delisting will not send populations into decline. (Andrew Englehorn/National Park Service)

With the preservation of grizzly bear populations in mind, four national forests in western Montana released the final version of proposed management plan changes this week.

The forest plan amendments control human encroachment in areas favored by the region’s estimated 1,000 grizzly bears: mining, logging, camping, road building, food storage and livestock grazing.

Included are the Lolo, Kootenai, Flathead and Helena-Lewis and Clark national forests – a vast acreage essential to the survival of grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains.

The Flathead included the new guidelines in its larger forest plan revision also released this week.

Since 1975, the federal government has protected grizzly bears in the lower 48 states as a threatened species. While the bears were once common from the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean, they now inhabit just four so-called “recovery areas,” the largest of which is the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers whether to remove grizzlies from the list of protected species, it must ensure the delisting will not send populations into decline.

Part of that process is amending national forest management plans to formally protect habitat favored by grizzly bears, forest supervisors Tim Garcia, Bill Avey, Chip Weber and Chris Savage said in releasing their decision.

The 148-page document explains the role of national forests in grizzly bear recovery in the Northern Continental Divide. Of the recovery zone’s 5.7 million acres, 3.48 million acres (or 61 percent) are on national forests.

But most of the relevant forest management plans haven’t been revised since the 1980s, so lack the newfound knowledge of what grizzly bears need to thrive and survive.

The goal of the amendments, the forest supervisors said, is to maintain habitat conditions in the prime recovery areas “at levels that occurred during the time period when the grizzly bear population was known to be growing and increasing in distribution.”

Protecting female grizzly bears is the key to the population’s survival. (Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks)

First and foremost, that means protecting female grizzly bears, according to the Record of Decision released this week.

“Survival of adult and sub-adult females is thought to have the largest influence on grizzly bear populations,” the decision says. “In the NCDE, human-caused mortality is the most significant factor influencing grizzly bear survival.”

A 2016 analysis of grizzly bear mortality data “showed that poaching/malicious kills likely accounted for the highest proportion of total independent bear mortality (27 percent), followed by management removals (16 percent), illegal defense of property (11 percent), and natural causes (9 percent),” according to the Forest Service.

The “management removals” mostly had a common theme, the agency said:

“The majority of management removals result from conflicts at sites on private lands associated with frequent or permanent human presence. Unsecured attractants on private lands such as chicken coops, garbage, human foods, pet/livestock foods, bird food, livestock carcasses, compost piles, orchard fruits, or vegetable gardens are usually the source of these conflicts.”

So in the end, humans are the drivers of grizzly bear recovery in the northern Rockies, the forest supervisors emphasized.

“The amount of habitat that is available to grizzly bears is determined largely by people and their activities,” their decision document says. “Maintaining large blocks of secure habitat is important to the survival and reproductive success of grizzly bears, especially females.”

That habitat security is found most easily in the 1.7 million acres of federally protected wilderness areas in the Northern Continental Divide.

But it must also include grizzly bear habitat in parts of the national forests where grizzlies and humans share occupancy.

Here’s how the forest plan amendments address the “key stressors” in those critical habitat zones:

Road densities in prime grizzly habitat: For decades, research has shown the negative impacts of roads (and the associated human activity) on grizzly bears.

Grizzlies generally adjust their habitat use patterns in response to road densities and traffic, and show a lower survival rate in heavily roaded areas.

The forest plan amendments seek to maintain baseline levels of roads in all grizzly bear management subunits within the primary conservation area. They also establish consistent guidelines throughout the region for the use and closure or obliteration of any temporary roads.

“These plan components will provide the conditions needed to maintain grizzly bear survival, reproduction, and distribution throughout the primary conservation area,” the decision says.

Because of the high potential for conflicts, the four national forests are not allowing increased livestock grazing in prime grizzly bear habitat. (USDA Forest Service)

Developed recreation sites: “The frequent or prolonged human occupancy that occurs at developed recreation sites increases the risk of habituation, food conditioning, and grizzly bear-human conflicts,” the Record of Decision says. “Implementation and monitoring of the food storage orders, public education, and increases in the availability of bear-resistant food storage devices have all helped to reduce the number of grizzly bear-human conflicts on the national forests in recent decades, and these would continue. Our decision will add forest plan components to limit future increases in the number or capacity of developed recreation sites designed and managed for overnight use during the non-denning season on NFS lands in the primary conservation area.”

Timber management: The decision is noticeably brief in its discussion of limits on logging in grizzly bear habitat.

“Our decision will add a consistent set of desired conditions and guidelines applicable to vegetation management in the primary conservation area,” it reads. “These plan components will provide for diverse cover and forage conditions and reduce the potential for grizzly bear displacement as a result of timber sale activities.”

Livestock grazing: The four national forests will not allow increases in the number of cattle grazing allotments above the baseline or in the number of domestic sheep allotments. The Fish and Wildlife Service considers livestock use of the national forests as “potentially detrimental” to grizzly bear survival because of “competition for forage, displacement of bears, and direct mortality as a result of conflicts.”

Minerals and energy development: Mineral and energy development “may potentially result in permanent habitat loss, habitat fragmentation or displacement from habitat,” according to the forest plan amendments.

Energy development is also known to increase grizzly bear mortality because of the increase in human activities in previously remote or uninhabited areas.

Thus the Forest Service’s conclusion: “Our decision will add plan components to guide new or reauthorized leases, permits, and/or plans of operation for mineral activities … in a manner that will help to reduce conflicts, promote public safety, and reduce impacts on grizzly bears. In the primary conservation area, a no surface occupancy stipulation will be required on new leases for leasable minerals.”

Food and attractant storage: The Forest Service will continue and extend its existing orders controlling the storage of food and other attractants in grizzly bear habitat. Supervisors and wildlife biologists alike said those restrictions have proved effective in the past, as they help prevent the habituation of bears to human food – a death sentence for grizzlies.

Read more about the forest plan amendments, including the full decision documents via this link.