Advocates urge agencies to prepare for Bitterroot grizzlies

Grizzly bear (USDA Forest Service)

As both federal and state agencies consider actions this week that could affect grizzly bears, particularly in the Bitterroot ecosystem, grizzly advocates want to see more transparency in the public process.

On Monday, nine northern Rockies-based organizations wrote a public letter outlining a handful of actions the Bitterroot Ecosystem subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee should take to help grizzlies expand into the Bitterroot region. The subcommittee meets virtually on Wednesday.

Their suggestions include the designation of grizzly bear management units like those that exist in other recovery areas; analyze, identify and protect potential migration corridors on public land surrounding the Bitterroot area; develop sanitation orders to protect bears on the seven affected national forests similar to those in the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems; and begin consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on six of the seven national forest plans.

The Lolo National Forest has already initiated consultation on its forest plan, prompted by recent lawsuit challenging the amount of roads on the forest.

“The best available science, court rulings and other information all point to how absolutely critical the greater Bitterroot ecosystem is to the recovery of the grizzly bear in the 48 states,” said the letter addressed to Jim Teare, Bitterroot subcommittee chair.

Recent confirmed reports of two grizzly bears near the East Fork of the Bitterroot River add some urgency to their request.

The organizations include Friends of the Bitterroot, Grizzly Times, Wild Earth Guardians, Wilderness Watch, WildWest Institute, Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Western Watersheds Project.

Mike Bader, consultant for the coalition, said the coalition was disappointed to see that Wednesday’s meeting would be held online using an application that limits public comment to a chat box instead of allowing people to speak.

Patty Ames, President Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, said she tried to address the issue with Teare but was contacted instead by incoming IGBC executive director David Diamond. Diamond reportedly said the letter would be read aloud during the meeting, but on Tuesday, he walked that back, saying the letter would instead be included in the chat, Ames said. 

Diamond, who has led the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee since 2016, also reportedly said the coalition could post links in the chat box to their reports, so the reports would be part of the public record. 

“What they’ll do with that, I don’t know,” Bader said. “Patty also told him we want these technology issues settled by the spring meeting, so we can get back to having real public input. Right now, we have no way to weigh in on the meeting.”

In May, Teare chaired a similar meeting but used the online venue to bar the public from hearing parts of the discussion that involved outfitters, science reports and changes to the IGBC. When asked why, Teare said he wanted to allow committee members to discuss issues among themselves before going out to the public.

A few months later, IGBC chair Jacqueline Buchanan sent a letter to the groups agreeing that Teare had violated open-meeting laws and the IGBC charter by not keeping the meeting open.

Now, the groups are hoping that Teare will be more transparent, Bader said.

Bader said what little work is being done to prepare for grizzly bears is all on the Montana side of the border. Even so, he questioned why the subcommittee asked for input only from certain counties – Lemhi, Clearwater, Ravalli – and not Missoula County, which lies within the Bitterroot Experimental Population Area. The Missoula County commission supports grizzly bear recovery.

However, Montana is starting to contribute less to grizzly bear recovery. On Thursday, the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission will consider a list of places where biologists can relocate bears removed from other areas for various reasons. Prior to this year, biologists could choose, based on their experience, the best places to release bears. But the 2021 Legislature passed Senate Bill 337, which limits location areas to those approved by the FWP commission.

Bader noted that the list being considered Thursday includes nothing in the Bitterroot or Sapphire ranges.

“The Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Committee, in their final recommendations, recommended that relocation sites be identified in these connectivity areas,” Bader said. “The question comes: if a bear is trapped for management reasons in the Bitterroot, are they going to move it to an ecosystem it no longer lives in or are they going to kill it? I think that’s an open question with this commission being so against predators.”

The Bitterroot subcommittee meeting begins at 9 a.m.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.