Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) More than two dozen organizations and scientists have submitted criticisms of Montana’s proposed grizzly bear management plan, hinting at the hurdles that might hamper delisting.

With three days to go until the comment period closes on the state grizzly bear management plan proposed by the Gianforte administration, 27 organizations and scientists have jointly submitted 67 pages of comments taking several aspects of the plan to task, offering science-based solutions instead.

In particular, they raised doubts that the Fish, Wildlife & Parks plan would provide adequate regulatory mechanisms to preserve healthy grizzly populations due to an emphasis on hunting and a lack of emphasis on population monitoring and protection of safe habitat, particularly in connectivity areas.

"The Draft Plan is flawed in its approach for maintaining viable grizzly populations by promoting isolated bear populations with an intolerance for interconnectivity of core populations," said Chris Bachman, Yaak Valley Forest Council Conservation Director. "The Plan’s priority focus should be recovering the isolated grizzly bear population within the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem and all unrecovered grizzly populations throughout Montana by protecting core habitat and building a public and private land corridor-scape that allows bears to move unmolested from core population to core population.”

The proposed plan says that FWP would not manage for grizzly bears outside of the core areas. The groups jumped on that, pointing to the science that says grizzly bears must be able to move successfully between core areas to keep populations from becoming inbred. That is also one of the aspects that caused a federal judge to rule against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s effort to delist the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears. Biologists need to prove to the judge that connectivity exists between core areas.

The commenters point out that populations in the Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk, Bitterroot and Cascade core areas have yet to recover. They will be unable to do so without the ability of bears to migrate from either the Greater Yellowstone or Northern Continental Divide ecosystems.

"The FWP draft statewide grizzly bear management plan is based upon the faulty premise that the grizzly bear is a recovered species, not worthy of federal protection. But the plan then undermines and endangers that premise by allowing human actions to further endanger the species. The science necessitates protection,” said Clint Nagel, Gallatin Wildlife Association president in a release.

The commenters oppose FWP’s proposal to estimate bear populations using controversial mathematical models. Wildlife biologists have used a patch occupancy model to estimate bear populations because bears are difficult to count. Recently, certain statisticians have replaced the patch occupancy model with the “integrated” patch occupancy model, which produces higher population estimates for both bears and wolves. Some question whether the new estimates are overblown, and a federal judge has required biologists to show the models are comparable.

The commenters say the plan should be more definite about limiting roads and trails in bear country. Roads and trails that penetrate secure grizzly bear habitat often lead to dead bears, either by increasing the chance of grizzly-human conflict or by pushing bears out of areas where they are supposed to be. For example, FWP has recently proposed a logging project on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area that would likely increase road densities above that recommended for wildlife.

“This plan shows little respect for grizzly bears or their habitat. It’s a plan to keep them penned up in patches of backcountry and to shoot or trap them when they try to get loose to interbreed,” said Keith Hammer, Chair of Swan View Coalition in a release.

The most controversial aspect of state management of grizzly bears is trophy hunting and trapping. It was contentious when Montana developed its previous two management plans for western Montana in 2006 and especially the Greater Yellowstone area in 2013.

The commenters take more than 10 pages to address all their objections to the hunting and trapping of grizzly bears, namely that hunting does little to reduce conflict, and it could rapidly and indiscriminately increase direct mortality and have ripple effects such as dooming cubs if a sow is killed. Grizzly bears are very slow at reproducing, because they don’t start to breed until they’re 4 or 5 years old, and then cubs stay with their mothers for two years. If too many bears or females are removed in one season, the population model wouldn’t show the problem soon enough and population numbers would start to backslide.

Add to that the fact that grizzlies could be maimed by or die from non-target trapping or be injured by hounds hunting black bears or mountain lions. Prior to the 2021 Legislature, using hounds to hunt black bears was illegal.

“The Draft Plan is a stunning display of FWP’s lack of credibility regarding predator

management. FWP has a duty to manage wildlife as part of the public trust, yet the Draft Plan makes clear that FWP intends to manage for a small group of special interests instead of grizzly bears and the public at large,” the commenters wrote.

FWP is sponsoring a Legislative bill that would formalize Montana’s management of grizzlies. It’s an unnecessary step, but outfitters, trappers and hunters spoke in support, in addition to Montana Stock Growers and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.

Recently, Chris Servheen, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator, told The Intercept that he had advocated for delisting the grizzly bear. But, that was before the 2020 election when the Gianforte administration took over and more far-right politicians were elected to the Legislature, “bringing what he sees as a wave of fact-free ‘hysteria’ sweeping the Rocky Mountain West.” Since then, FWP wildlife management has been less science-based and more political.

“For years, I was leading the recovery program and advocating that we should recover grizzly bears and delist the bears and turn them over to state management because I had a lot of faith in the state, that the state was making management decisions based on science and facts,” Servheen told The Intercept. ““I can’t support that given the politicians doing what they’re doing. And this has just happened in the past two years. It’s totally new.”

The organizations that signed the document range from national nonprofits, such as Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians, to Montana groups such as the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, Friends of the Bitterroot and the Park County Environmental Council. Scientists include biologist Frank Lance Craighead, son of noted Yellowstone grizzly bear biologist Frank Craighead, former University of Montana wildlife biologist Lee Metzgar, and wildlife researcher David Mattson.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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