While most of Idaho still awaits cold winter weather and a deep, stable snowpack, officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are finally pulling their plans to restore grizzly bears in the Bitterroot Ecosystem out of a long-cycling deep-freeze. Last year, Missoula federal district judge Donald Molloy made clear that after 20 years of neglecting its wildlife management responsibilities, the USFWS must restart plans to restore grizzly bears in the Bitterroot Recovery Zone, a large chunk of prime habitat identified in the Service’s 2000 Environmental Impact Statement.

The Bitterroot Recovery Zone is one of six areas identified in the 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan as having quality habitat that’s big enough to support a recovered population of bears. Spanning nearly 5,500 square miles in eastern Idaho it’s nearly three times the combined size of all other designated grizzly recovery areas in the state—including the Greater Yellowstone, Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystems. As one of the largest intact blocks of wild country in the lower-48 States, it includes sections of  the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness areas. Biologists have estimated this habitat could support a population of around 300 grizzlies.

Grizzly tracks. Ed Cannady photo.

After 100 years of trapping, hunting, and predator control for livestock operations, the last grizzly track in Bitterroot country was seen around 1946. Grizzlies were added to the endangered species list in 1975. Since then, some populations have rebounded—grizzlies in the Yellowstone Ecosystem have stabilized and grown to the point where those animals may soon get removed from the endangered species list. All Americans should celebrate the recovery path these bears are on, thanks to ESA protections. However, these gains haven’t been made with all of the grizzly populations—especially in the Bitterroots, where an instance of a single breeding female (one of the standards for ESA recovery) has yet to be documented.

There are many factors playing a role in the unsuccessful recovery of Bitterroot grizzlies. Highway systems and other factors involving human-related conflicts have primarily kept bears in the North Continental Divide and Yellowstone recovery zones from re-occupying available habitat in the Bitterroot. ICL also believes that Idaho’s wildlife management policy has not done enough to advocate for the grizzlies’ return to our state.  

Back in 2000, USFWS announced a federal plan for the Bitterroot that would introduce an “experimental population” of 25 animals in phases. After the State of Idaho sued, the USFWS got cold feet and never finalized that plan. Now decades later, Judge Molloy’s ruling is forcing the agency to take a “fresh look at a strategy for supporting restoration of grizzly bears in the Bitterroot Ecosystem.” This “fresh look” also initiates a public comment window and brings 20 more years of research to the table for use in the crafting of a new plan. The USFWS must now take actions to restore a “recovered” population of grizzlies in the Bitterroots that is well distributed, self-sustaining, and protected well enough to maintain long-term “viability and connectivity (to other populations).” In addition to new science, other factors the USFWS will need to examine as it develops a new Environmental Impact Statement will include grizzly bear management priorities, effects on cultural and Tribal resources, and potential socioeconomic effects. 

The USFWS is beginning public outreach this month and has scheduled three public “scoping” meetings to discuss the range of alternatives being considered to restore grizzlies in the Bitterroot recovery zone. In short, these approaches would include single or combined actions of: 

  1. Active reintroduction: establish a breeding population of Bitterroot bears by capturing animals from other (to be determined) populations for release into that recovery zone
  2. Natural recolonization: through specific management efforts, bears establish breeding populations in the Bitterroots after having dispersed naturally from other populations—most likely the North Continental Divide and Yellowstone Ecosystems
  3. Actions to facilitate connectivity: taking conservation measures to ensure that individual bears and/or family clusters can move between important landscapes to fulfill their life history needs 
  4. “No action” alternative: no change from a current management direction or level of management intensity 
Ed Cannady photo.

Promises from the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to restore grizzly bears to the wild country of the Bitterroots, have—some 25 years later—gone unfulfilled. ICL is encouraged that rekindled efforts by the agency will finally return bears to a large chunk of core habitat in Idaho that’s currently unoccupied. We hope the State of Idaho works constructively toward this goal—after all, to ensure that Idaho’s wildlife heritage is passed down to future generations, the full range of Idaho’s native wildlife must be represented across our lands and waters.

Now is the time to speak up for grizzly bear recovery in Idaho! Register now to attend one of three upcoming informational meetings hosted by USFWS that will kick off this public involvement process:

Also, make sure you don’t miss a single update on grizzly bear progress—and opportunities to speak up for Idaho’s grizzlies and other wildlife—by signing up for ICL’s Wildlife Updates