From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 5, Number 47 - February 16, 2006
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Suitable habitat for grizzlies at issue

by Cat Urbigkit

Last week, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Terry Cleveland issued his agency’s final comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the draft rule to de-list grizzly bears.

Cleveland pointed out that the biggest issue with the draft rule is the designation of “suitable” habitat.

“The suitable habitat designated in the draft rule is essentially biologically suitable habitat with urban areas and active domestic sheep allotments removed,” Cleveland wrote.

The draft rule defined suitable habitat for Yellowstone’s bears to include all of northwestern Wyoming, south through the Bridger-Teton National Forest in the Wind River Range, but excluding the Wyoming Range. Suitable habitat was defined as having three characteristics: being of adequate habitat quality and quantity to support grizzly bear reproduction and survival; contiguous with the current distribution of current population; and low mortality risk as indicated through reasonable and manageable levels of grizzly bear/human conflicts.

FWS’ rule included a map providing that suitable bear habitat includes the Wind River Mountain Range, although the WG&F’s state management plan deleted this area. The state plan notes that although some portions of western Wyoming may contain biologically suitable habitat for grizzly bears, not all of that habitat is “socially acceptable” for grizzlies. Taking this into consideration, WG&F maintains, “it appears the biologically suitable and socially acceptable habitats in the Wyoming portion of the Greater Yellowstone Area occur north of the Snake River Canyon and Hoback River, which includes a contiguous region bounding the Absaroka Range and that portion of the Wind River Range north of Boulder Creek.”

WG&F maintains in its state plan for management of grizzlies upon delisting that the Wyoming and Salt River Ranges are not suitable for grizzly bear occupancy, nor is the portion of the Wind River Range south of Boulder Creek. In addition, “all private lands and most of the lands managed by the BLM outside the national forests have high potential for human/grizzly bear conflicts and a source of grizzly bear mortality making them unsuitable for sustaining grizzly bears.”

The state plan also acknowledged that the Upper Green River region, which is already occupied by grizzlies and experiences numerousc onflicts every year, “could also be considered unsuitable for grizzly bear occupancy,” but the area is significant in ensuring long-term bear distribution and population objectives. Recognizing the area’s importance, the plan noted,“this does not preclude managing for low bear densities” to minimize conflicts.

Cleveland pointed out in his letter to FWS that the federal conservation strategy for grizzlies states that state grizzly management plans will provide management direction for those areas adjacent to the current bear recovery zone as well as allowing grizzly bears to expand into areas that are both biologically suitable and socially acceptable.

Wyoming’s plan determined that not all biologically suitable bear habitat in western Wyoming is socially acceptable for bear occupancy and includes efforts to discourage dispersal and occupancy in the southern Wind Rivers. Unfortunately, the draft de-listing rule included this area as “suitable habitat.”

Cleveland noted that the state plan recognizes that although a grizzly could disperse into the biologically suitable habitat in the southern Winds, “and could live there if it never caused any human conflicts ... the chance of a grizzly bear occupying this area without human conflict is very slim.”

Cleveland noted that five places in the draft de-listing rule, FWS states that grizzlies will be allowed to expand into suitable habitat or all suitable habitat, as defined by the draft rule.

“Without a qualification after each of these statements that expansion of bears in areas outside the primary conservation area will be per direction provided in the conservation strategy and associated state grizzlybear management plans, there is some confusion whether expansion will simply be allowed or managed per state plans,” Cleveland wrote. “It is imperative that the final rule be absolutely clear that grizzly bear distribution outside the primary conservation area will be managed according to the provisions of each state plan as specified in the conservation strategy.”

Cleveland’s letter requested a few other changes, including a clarification of the rule to note that food storage rules would only been forced on national park and forest lands in suitable habitat, “and not on all lands.”

Cleveland pointed out that in Wyoming, there is no provision in law that would allow individuals to take grizzly bears in the act of killing livestock or destroying private property. Noting that Montana does have such a law, Cleveland wrote, “Wyoming could consider a statutory change to allow this form of take in the future, since this type of take will never account for significant bear mortality.”

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