From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 104, Number 17 - April 26, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Reaction mixed on grizzlies being delisted

by Julia Stuble

To the acclaim of stockgrowers, and disgust of wildlife conservationists, the federal government announced it would delist the Yellowstone population of the grizzly bear effective the end of this month. Grizzlies were listed as threatened in 1975, when scientists estimated between 136 and 312 bears lived in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Now, the Yellowstone grizzly population, which includes the entire greater Yellowstone ecosystem, numbers at over 500 bears, leading Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett to praise it as a “remarkable comeback.” “There is simply no way to overstate what an amazing accomplishment this is. I believe all Americans should be proud that, as a nation, we had the will and the ability to protect and restore this symbol of the wild,” Scarlett noted in a release.

Scarlett’s pronouncement that the grizzly bear conservation strategy “incorporates the best available science” came at a time when the Department of the Interior (DOI) has come under fire for weighing politics over science. At the end of March, the DOI’s inspector general concluded an investigation of Julie A. MacDonald, the deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks. The investigation found that MacDonald’s colleagues said she “trenchantly resisted both designating new species as endangered and protecting imperiled animals’ habitats,” according to a story in the March 31 issue of the Washington Post.

The conservation strategy for the bears outside of Yellowstone National Park, like those in the Upper Green River Valley, will be executed by the Wyoming Game and Fish. The strategy has federal approval, whose agencies will work cooperatively with state authorities.

Zach Turnbull, the Pinedale/Jackson Bear Conflict specialist with the Wyoming Game and Fish, reported that no grizzlies were lethally removed from the Upper Green last year. Typically, bears are removed for habitual livestock depredations. In 2005, Turnbull said that two grizzlies were lethally removed, and he captured and relocated eight. Jim Magagna, the executive vice president of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association called the delisting “a win all the way around.”

“I’m very much in favor of it. Delisting is long overdue. We met the original criteria, and now we’ve met the latest set of criteria,” Magagna said of the federal standards that had to be met before delisting would be proposed. Of the Upper Green, he said stockgrowers had been faced “with chronic problems ever since grizzlies recovered in that area.” “Even under delisting [grizzly depredations] will continue to be a negative impact, but one that we’ll have some flexibility to deal with.”

Conservationists’ response Grizzlies face a host of problems, from which they will not be adequately protected when delisted, say wildlife conservationists. A contingent of groups has already announced it will file a lawsuit if the delisting is not reversed. The coalition includes the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Humane Society of the United States, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, the Great Bear Foundation and the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

Governor Dave Freudenthal wrote a letter to the law firm Earthjustice, which will represent the groups, asking that the lawsuit be filed in Wyoming noting, “logic and common sense dictate that such action should be filed where the bears live.”

Jonathan Ratner with the Western Watershed Project, explained that the threats to bears have not been adequately reviewed by the federal government.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service, under this administration, has become a corrupt Office of Faith-Based Conservation, where they sit around hoping that species will recover while doing everything in their power to undermine any real protection for species in need,” Ratner noted. Pointing out the scandal with MacDonald, Ratner said it “calls into question the intent of the agency.”

The threats facing the bears, according to the conservation groups are problems associated with habitat losses, global warming, and a lack of genetic diversity to survive without stringent federal protections. As the bear population grows, they will continue to spread into areas, like the Upper Green, where they are patently unwelcome on public and private lands. This increases the likelihood of more and more lethal takes, argue these conservationists, as human/bear conflicts are the largest cause of bear mortalities.

“The population size targets in the original listing are far too small to sustain a population in the long-term,” Ratner commented, pointing out the Yellowstone population is an isolated population. These bears are not connected to any other population, and thus must inbreed and reduce their genetic diversity.

University of Idaho biologist Lisette Waits has said the bears’ genetic diversity was poor even before delisting. Poor genetic diversity reduces the survivability of the population.

In Waits’ study, Yellowstone bears were heterozygous (when both copies of a gene are different) only 55 percent of the time. The Glacier population was heterozygous 70 percent of the time. This low percentage restricts the bears’ response to environmental changes.

This, the conservation groups point out, is another risk. Rising temperatures in the West, as the result of global warming, has unleashed an incredibly destructive timber threat, the mountain pine beetle, which is bad news for the bears.

How does a tiny beetle affect a 700-pound grizzly bear? Across the Rocky Mountain West, the epidemic beetle population is decimating stands of whitebark pine trees, and as temperatures rise, the beetles’ range has expanded to higher altitudes and new areas. Grizzly bears, popularly pictured as massive carnivores, rely on whitebark pine nuts in their pre-hibernative months. In the late summer, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team says the pine nuts “are arguable the most important fattening food available to grizzly bears.”

Loss of this food source would endanger the bears’ survival, said this study team. Beetle scientists are not predicting good news for the whitebark pines in coming years as the West warms.

Dr. Jesse Logan, who retired last summer as the head of the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Laboratory’s beetle research unit, has targeted Wyoming Wind River Mountains as a refuge for grizzlies.

Using computer projections, Dr. Logan believes that while whitebarks in other parts of the West will be wiped out by the warming-induced beetle invasion, the Winds will stay cold until 2100.

So far, the Winds have survived much of the beetle’s attack, says Logan, which is why he and the Natural Resources Defense Council and other conservationists, want the Range deemed a protected area for the beleaguered grizzly.

Meredith Taylor, with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, deems it “premature to delist the grizzly bear in light of the past decade of serious habitat decline, particularly in whitebark pine forests.”

“Let’s be real about this and figure out how’s the best way to put these habitat protections in place first, before delisting,” Taylor concluded.

The federally-approved conservation strategy says the Yellowstone grizzly bear population must be maintained above 500 bears, and will give “full protections” to bears in a 9,300-square mile “prime protection area.”

This prime protection area extends 3,300 square miles outside of Yellowstone National Park.

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