State, federal agencies delay grizzly bear conservation strategy for Northern Continental Divide

A grizzly bear and cubs venture into view at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. (Missoula Current file photo)

State and federal agencies still haven’t signed onto a plan to manage grizzly bears in north-central Montana, but that’s OK with wildlife advocates frustrated by the lack of public input.

On Tuesday, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Executive Committee backed off its intended endorsement of the conservation strategy for grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountains wildernesses.

Committee chair Matt Hogan said he wants to give the committee more time to consider public comment on the 326-page document.

The problem was the document was posted to the IGBC website on Monday, one day before the meeting.

So when the public was given time to comment during Tuesday’s meeting, several wildlife advocates blasted the committee for rushing the process after taking so long to finalize the conservation strategy. They asked for at least a 60-day comment period because the document had undergone several changes since it was first published in 2013.

“Only this morning did we see a press release that the strategy was on the website. The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 promised us in writing we’d have the opportunity to comment on the revised strategy. So to ask us to comment on a document we’ve yet to see is a farce,” said Keith Hammer, chairman of the Kalispell-based Swan View Coalition.

Scott Jackson of the U.S. Forest Service’s National Carnivore Program tried to explain the timeline of the document’s development, from assembling a team in 2009 to the initial draft of the conservation strategy in 2013. It went through three peer reviews and received 2,400 public comments. But that’s where Jackson’s explanation got vague.

“Work kinda took a backseat because the Fish and Wildlife Service had other priorities, and we didn’t concentrate our efforts on the strategy and didn’t respond to the comments at that time,” Jackson said. “They were kind of put on hold in 2013.”

The IGBC reassembled the team in November 2017, and it spent the first half of 2018 scrambling to review and update the 2013 document with new science and policy changes that have occurred in the past five years.

The changes dealt with every aspect of the document, Jackson said, from detailing conflict prevention tools that can used in connectivity corridors to explaining the choice of 2011 as the year on which to base habitat conditions. One thing that is still unknown is how far the conflict management zone, Zone 3, will extend into northeastern Montana.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Cecile Costello explained that the committee decided against the 2013 requirement that a minimum of 800 bears be maintained in the NCDE. Grizzly bears are difficult to track and collar, so biologists have to estimate the population using models.

So the committee has modified the document to use a percentage of the estimated grizzly population as the limit for the number of male or female bears that can die, and alternatively, how many females survive.

“This actually sets the bar higher,” Costello said.

A grizzly bear roams through the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo)

But Costello’s words didn’t put wildlife advocates at ease since they’d hadn’t been allowed to read the document themselves.

Bonnie Rice of the Sierra Club said the IGBC put the public in a similarly bad position a few years ago when it released the conservation strategy for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear population.

The problem then was the committee released the strategy at the same time it published the delisting rule and criteria, which confused people, Rice said.

“The public was not allowed to comment on that revised strategy either, even though there was also a promise that that opportunity would be afforded to the public,” Rice said. “I remember a meeting of this committee where the Fish and Wildlife Service said that was a mistake and would not be repeated. That process was a mess. But here we are.”

The Greater Yellowstone population was delisted one year ago.

Hogan told the Missoula Current that the IGBC probably wouldn’t open a public comment period because the NCDE conservation strategy isn’t regulatory. It merely outlines all the agencies’ regulations related to grizzly bear management, such as forest management plans. Hogan said the public should focus their comments on agency plans.

Some of the national forests, such as the Lolo, haven’t finished rewriting their forest plans while other plans will need to be amended. So the conservation strategy needs to set the bar, Rice said, or bear management under the forest plans could be watered down.

The IGBC will probably vote on the conservation plan before the end of the summer, Hogan said.

In the meantime, the USFWS is developing its draft rule for delisting the NCDE population, which will probably be published in the fall.