From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 6, Number 16 - July 13, 2006
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Groups appeal bear habitat plan

by Cat Urbigkit

Five conservation groups have filed an appeal of the grizzly bear habitat guidelines recently established by the U.S. Forest Service for the Yellowstone region.

The groups include the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Western Watersheds Project.

Late last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed that the Yellowstone grizzly bear population be removed from the federal list of threatened species. As a complement to that proposal, the Forest Service developed a combination of measures that are intended to ensure the protection of sufficient habitat for the grizzly population to survive once federal protection is lifted.  Last week, the conservation groups filed an appeal of the Forest Service plan, contending that it does not protect enough bear habitat.

“We’re asking that the Forest Service protect the lands where the bears currently live,” said Dick Dolan of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “According to the government’s own scientists, 40 percent of the land where grizzlies now live will not be protected by the government plan.”

In the area where the Forest Service measures do apply, the groups contend that the protections are not strong enough. 

“The plan designates ‘secure habitat’ for the bears,” said Heidi Godwin of the Sierra Club. “But the Forest Service included a loophole that allows 30,000 acres of that supposedly ‘secure’ habitat to be lost every year.  It just doesn’t make sense.” 

The groups were also disturbed by the Forest Service’s treatment of the public comments on the plan. By law, federal agencies are required to listen to input from the public regarding their management of public lands. 

The Forest Service gave short shrift to the public comment it received. Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out that the Forest Service received more than 40,000 comments urging it to adopt stronger protections across more land.  “More than 90 percent of the public comments recommended that the Forest Service give the bears more space to live,” said Willcox. “But the Forest Service did not even acknowledge that overwhelming public response.”  In its final decision, the Forest Service stated that “many” people favored the plan as proposed, while only “anumber” asked for greater protections. “The agency misrepresented how the public feels about grizzly bears,” Willcox said.

The appeal will be decided by the Forest Service’s Regional Forester in Ogden, Utah. A decision is not expected until early this fall. 

The groups content that federal wildlife managers are going ahead with plans to lift protections for Yellowstone grizzlies despite a recent report that shows the bears are in decline and that current recovery standards have not been met due to a string of years of excessive female grizzly bear deaths.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team produces an annual report on the status of the Yellowstone grizzlies. The data and the violations detailed in the 2005 report raise serious concerns about the futureof grizzlies in Yellowstone. Only 31 female grizzlies with cubs were observed last summer, down from 49 the previous year. By the federal agencies’ own method for calculating the number of bears in the entire population, the decline in females with cubs indicates that the population declined from 588 in 2004 to approximately 350 bears this year.

“No one contends that the population estimate is perfectly accurate,” said Louisa Willcox of Natural Resources Defense Council. “But whether you look at one year or a series of years, we have a declining population.”

“In light of the violation of its own recovery standards, the government should withdraw its delisting proposal,” said Doug Honnold, an attorney with Earthjustice in Bozeman who has spent much of his career defending grizzlies. “The government has said protecting female grizzly bears is the key to recovery, and they’re right. This should be a wake-up call to figure out why so many female grizzly bears are dying and to continue to protect the bears until we fix the problem.”

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