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National Forests told to protect grizzly bears as threatened

Posted at 9:34 AM, Jan 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-31 11:58:03-05

MISSOULA — A U.S. Fish and Wildlife letter clarifies grizzly bear protection in the Bitterroot Mountains, but some questions remain for bears moving between recovery areas.

Last week, the Montana and Idaho offices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter to the four national forests along the western Montana-Idaho border stating that any grizzly bear that migrates into the Bitterroot Grizzly Bear Experimental Population Area has the same protections as other grizzlies under the Endangered Species Act.

The national forests included the Lolo, Bitterroot, Salmon-Challis and Nez Perce-Clearwater.

That isn’t really a change, said Randy Arnold, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 2 supervisor, because that’s how his agency dealt with them. But as bears are beginning to move into the Bitterroot region, the letter removes any question of how to deal with them.

“I was operating under the guidelines that (the USFWS) were aiming to have the Bitterroot ecosystem naturally recolonize,” Arnold said. “Therefore, my expectation for how a bear would show up there is a lot like the way bears are showing up in that country.”

Questions were sometimes raised, because when the USFWS proposed transplanting bears into the Bitterroot region in 2000, the agency said the resulting population would be experimental, similar to the wolves introduced in Idaho. That meant agencies and the public could do more things to manage the bears than the Endangered Species Act allows.

The Bitterroot Experimental Population area is larger than the Bitterroot Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone, which is centered on the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness. The experimental area extends beyond the wilderness as far north as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, west to Lewistown, Idaho, and east to Missoula and Salmon, Idaho.

In 2001, the plan to transplant 25 bears was abandoned. But some were uncertain as to whether the “experimental” classification would still apply to any grizzlies in the Bitterroot region. Not so, says the USFWS.

So the grizzly bear from the Cabinet Mountains that made his way down to the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness this past summer retains full protection. While he was the first confirmed grizzly bear in the wilderness, biologists suspect that others may have made the same trek. So it may not be long before a population gets established in the Bitterroot Mountains.

Meanwhile, the bear that ended up on the Stevensville golf course in October 2018 had wandered down from the Swan Valley. He almost made it into the Bitterroot Wilderness but unfortunately stopped short.

Back then, the bear was transplanted from the golf course back into the Northern Continental Divide Recovery Area. If the same situation occurred today, even with bears starting to arrive in the Bitterroot area, biologists would still transport it to the same place, Arnold said.

“If we were back in that situation, without further direction and some addition conversation, we’re not ready to move a bear into a previously unoccupied area. We have no intention of moving bears to the Bitterroot,” Arnold said. “When we go to move a bear to a new place, how do I begin to have a conversation with the community in that new area as to how this bear showed up there and aiming not to catch anybody by surprise?”

Arnold said that’s where Gov. Steve Bullock’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council will hopefully provide some guidance. FWP biologists need to have a better idea of what Montanans want them to do about grizzly bears outside the three established recovery zones – Yellowstone, Cabinet-Yaak and Northern Continental Divide.

“WildEarth Guardians spokesman Adam Rissien is also hoping that the advisory council comes up with good recommendations for what should happen outside recovery areas, because that’s how bears are going to move between populations.

The letter emphasizes that grizzly bears should be treated the same everywhere, not just in protected pockets, Rissien said. So the council should make connectivity a priority.

“This confirms that ESA protections travel with the bears,” Rissien said. “With the ESA protection attributed to all traveling grizzly bears, it makes the migration corridors that much more important. We want to make sure that areas that bears utilize are protected and provide secure habitat and the highest quality habitat.”

Rissien said he was happy to see one of the letters was sent to the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest because it’s currently revising its forest plan. Unfortunately, the draft plan hasn’t included any real protection for grizzly bear habitat. Now, with no question about the grizzly bears’ protection status, the forest plan needs to be rewritten, Rissien said.

“That means the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest Plan revision is critical, because bears are using the Great Burn as a corridor to the Bitterroot,” Rissien said. “They need to ensure the grizzly bears can thrive in the final plan. We don’t see the standards and guidelines to achieve that.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com