Conservation groups say it’s too early
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — Federal biologists last week said they expect to decide within a month whether they will remove grizzly bears in the northern Rockies from the endangered species list despite a recent study suggesting that populations may be declining.
Grizzlies were classified as a threatened species in 1975 and cooperative conservation efforts have help recover and stabilized some populations, but wildlife conservation groups say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to take grizzlies off the list is premature.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the agency — under pressure from anto-environmental state governments in the northern Rockies region, — may be ignoring evidence that Yellowstone’s grizzly bears face increased threats from loss of key foods and human-caused deaths.
“This highly political proposal comes when the best evidence on the ground suggests the bears are facing significant threats,” said Louisa Willcox, a grizzly bear conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The push to drop protection is being driven by states hostile to large carnivores. But these bears have the lowest reproductive rate of any North American mammal. Hunting and other causes of death are certain to reverse the progress that’s been made toward recovery,” she said.
An Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee recommended last week that the USFWS move ahead with de-listing, partly in response to a new report showing that grizzlies will be able to adjust to the loss of one key food source — fatty whitebark pine nuts that help the bears prepare for hibernation.
A previous federal proposal to strip the bears off Endangered Species Act protections was rejected by a fedeeral court based largely on the agency’s failure to consider the loss of that food source, but the latest research suggests the bears can adjust by shifting to other types of food.
Now, conservation groups are pointing out new gaps in the research. Government biologists didn’t consider projected changes in elk populations, and some of the studies on whitebark pines haven’t been completely vetted, potentially in violation of federal policies.
“In their desire to please the states, the feds are looking at the bear’s status through rose-colored glasses,” said Willcox. “We’re already seeing greater bear mortality as a result of conflicts related to bears eating more meat, and even potential declines in the population. Loss of protection will only exacerbate these trends.”
Another federal study suggests the grizzly population may have been declining by an average of 4 percent a year since 2008. The decline parallels the loss of whitebark pine and a concurrent spike in bear mortalities. Despite this study the USGS has twice raised its estimates of the bear population in the past year, but steadfastly refused to release the data behind these estimates.
“The government is cherry-picking the data to get the result it needs to justify delisting, while refusing to release the data it used to reach its conclusions,” said Willcox. “In reality top grizzly researchers say the bear population has likely been in significant decline for five years.”
Delisting of the Yellowstone bears and associated hunting would leave this grizzly bear population permanently isolated from other grizzly bears. This means that bears would need to be trucked into Yellowstone to avoid genetic inbreeding.
“Delisting would leave grizzly bears on permanent life support, and push the bear back to the brink of extinction,” said Willcox. “There’s still a chance to reconnect Yellowstone to other grizzly bear populations and recover grizzly bears in the lower 48, but not if Yellowstone’s population is prematurely delisted and subsequently crashes.”
To further investigate the rushed effort to delist grizzly bears, the Center for Biological Diversitt filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for all documents and interagency correspondence used in developing the USGS study.