From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 3, Number 1 - April 3, 2003
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Grizz goal: 500 bruins

by Cat Urbigkit

State officials have done it once again: they've signed onto a plan for managing grizzly bears upon removal from federal protection that is more stringent than the provisions of the existing federal recovery plan. Similar action was taken with wolf management in Wyoming as well.

Last week, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission voted 6-1 to give new WG&F Director Brent Manning the authority to approve the grizzly bear conservation strategy, even though the commission hadn't seen the final version of the document. According to WG&F Department Assistant Division Chief for Wildlife John Emmerich, the commission had seen a similar version of the same document last November and there were only a few revisions to the strategy approved last week.

The conservation strategy is the umbrella document that will guide grizzly bear management once bears are removed from protection as a threatened species listed pursuant to the Endangered Species Act. The recently approved Wyoming Grizzly Bear Management Plan is appended to the conservation strategy.

When asked why the commission was only provided a summary of the new document and not the final version of the strategy itself, Emmerich said his agency had been advised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to release the document to the commission.

"The advice from the Fish and Wildlife Service was until it was finished, it couldn't be released," Emmerich said. He noted it wasn't until minutes before the commission's telephone conference call last week when the vote was cast, that the department learned that the commission could have received the actual document and not just the summary.

Manning signed the final conservation strategy at a meeting with federal and state wildlife and land-management officials in North Carolina last Wednesday. The document is now finalized and includes new population goals for grizzlies in Wyoming.

Before detailing the new provisions, it's worthwhile to look back at the existing federal requirements.

The federal Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan outlines what it would take to achieve grizzly recovery in the 9,209-square-mile Yellowstone recovery zone. That includes at least 15 females with cubs over a running six-year average both inside the recovery zone and within a 10-mile area immediately surrounding the recovery zone; 16 of 18 bear management units occupied by females with young; and known, human-caused mortality not to exceed 4 percent of the population estimate based on the most recent three-year sum of females with cubs. The plan noted, "The target of at least 15 unduplicated females with cubs indicates a minimum population average of at least 158 bears."

It's important to note that grizzly bear activity in the Upper Green River region is not included in the official counts for achieving grizzly recovery, since the area is about 25 miles outside the recovery zone. So neither females with cubs, nor human-caused mortality in the Upper Green, are included in assessing whether the recovery criteria is being met.

The reasoning behind this was fairly simple. The recovery plan noted that the designated recovery zone includes "an area large enough and of sufficient habitat quality to support a recovered grizzly-bear population."

All of the population parameters described in the recovery plan for the Yellowstone recovery zone had been met by 1999 and the population continues to exceed the goals set forth in the plan.

But the conservation strategy includes standards not included in the recovery plan, including an overall population goal of 500 grizzlies in the Yellowstone population. The population estimate for the Yellowstone area is now 531 animals, according to Emmerich. Although the recovery plan didn't include an overall numerical population goal, it included the statement about a minimum of 158 bears.

Emmerich said the recovery plan didn't address genetic issues and research demonstrated that to address the genetic health of the population, a minimum population of 400 bears was needed. To provide some leeway, the strategy placed the goal at 500 bears.

In addition, all monitoring and population counts will be done throughout the Yellowstone region, not just in the existing recovery zone. That means the grizzlies in the Upper Green, and the management removals resulting from conflicts with those grizzlies, will be counted.

The strategy states, "This is more stringent than the system under the recovery plan and allows management of the entire population. ..."

Emmerich said the WG&F Commission approved a state management plan for grizzly bears that drew an exterior boundary line for grizzly-bear occupancy. He said the state will now go through a public process to determine what bear distribution and numbers will be inside that line. That process will be the state's determination of what areas are "biologically suitable and socially acceptable" for grizzlies.

The strategy document states that the intent of the strategy "is to allow grizzlies to expand their range and numbers and reoccupy all biologically suitable and socially acceptable habitats."

The complete conservation strategy is posted on the Internet at The strategy, including all its appendixes, now totals several hundred pages.

As an aside, it isn't clear why the WG&F Commission held a special teleconference call in March to vote on allowing the department's director to approve the conservation strategy, since WG&F department personnel gave the agency's nod of approval to the document last November at an interagency meeting.

The WG&F is a member of the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. According to the November 2002 minutes of the YES meeting, the conservation strategy was discussed and approved at that meeting by all the agencies in attendance, including WG&F.

It was noted that the conservation strategy will be revisited in five years and revised as needed. The notes from the meeting also stated that several clarifications were made: "Management of the minimum of 400 bears addresses genetic concerns. The population is estimated at greater than 400 now. The conservation strategy states the management of the current population or more."

After discussing agreeing to these items, Mike Long of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the motion to approve the conservation strategy and forward it to the IGBC. According to the minutes, the subcommittee cast a unanimous vote in favor of the motion.

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