By Brad Smith
The state of Idaho petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove all grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 from the endangered species list in March 2022. Grizzly bear populations in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Washington were put on the list in 1975. The Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan calls for restoring populations in the Yellowstone, Northern Continental Divide, Selkirk, Cabinet-Yaak, Bitterroot and North Cascades ecosystems — representing a fraction of the species’ historic range in the western United States.
The recovery plan envisioned that these populations would be removed individually from the endangered species list when their population-specific recovery goals were achieved.
Thanks to the Endangered Species Act listing and associated efforts, recovery goals for both the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide have been met. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has twice attempted to remove the Yellowstone Population from the endangered species list and twice those attempts were overturned in court. Idaho’s petition to remove all grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 was triggered by these court decisions.
While the state’s frustration is understandable, Idaho’s petition to remove all grizzly bear populations from the endangered species list is premature. For starters, recovery targets for the Selkirk, Cabinet-Yaak, Bitterroot and North Cascades populations have not been achieved. More work is needed to recover these other populations. Delisting of any grizzly population should only occur after recovery goals have been met.
The Idaho Conservation League believes that conservation strategies should also be drafted and approved for each population before delisting occurs. Conservation strategies are documents that provide additional clarity regarding recovery criteria. These documents also spell out the management commitments and responsibilities of state fish and wildlife departments when delisting occurs, before the primary role of grizzly bear management is officially handed to the states.
If the states of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Washington fail to sustain healthy grizzly populations or live up to their management commitments, then federal law mandates that grizzly populations will go back on the endangered species list.
Managing grizzly bears requires both proactive and responsive approaches. There were 21 incidents of livestocks depredations in Boundary and Bonner counties last summer. As far as state and federal officials can tell, these incidents can be attributed to just two male grizzlies that had been conditioned to seek out livestock for food. Idaho Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to make a tough call and euthanize these two grizzlies because they posed a danger to both livestock and people. Five grizzlies near Island Park were also euthanized last year.
While it is impossible to say with certainty that these incidents could have been avoided, we know that proactive education campaigns and assistance programs can help minimize conflict between grizzlies and people. There is a need to expand programs that are designed to teach local residents to secure grizzly bear attractants such as livestock and pet food, trash, gardens and orchards. Assistance is available to help ranchers and farmers cover the cost of electric fencing to protect their animals and their crops. Recreationalists, hunters and anglers must also be educated about how to recreate responsibly in bear country.
Before the state of Idaho assumes the primary role of managing grizzlies within our borders, the state must also deploy more staff and resources for these types of programs. Idaho Fish and Game employs one permanent employee and one seasonal employee for grizzly bear work in the Idaho Panhandle. The department also has one permanent position in southeast Idaho in the Yellowstone ecosystem. This is important work and we are thankful for the resources and talent that Idaho Fish and Game is directing toward it, but more is needed.
Given the distinctness of and distance between the communities of Priest Lake, the east side of Bonner County and Boundary County, the department should deploy one full-time staff person in each of these areas to assist with both proactive and defensive grizzly bear management efforts. Additional full-time staff will also be needed in the communities of southeastern Idaho near Yellowstone and those near the Bitterroot. This will require funding, and the state and federal governments need to invest in this effort.
Finally, any discussion about delisting grizzly bear populations should include tribal officials. While state fish and wildlife departments are generally the primary managers of non-listed species, tribes are playing an increasingly important role in the management of fish and wildlife within their traditional territories through co-management and even tribal government-led management arrangements.
Tribes with traditional territories in grizzly country likely have something to say about delisting and who will have a hand in managing grizzlies post-delisting. Notwithstanding the need to honor tribal treaty rights, we owe it to tribes to consult them on grizzly bear delisting, and their knowledge and experience will lead to better outcomes for humans and wildlife alike.
Brad Smith is the North Idaho director of the Idaho Conservation League.
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