As we transition from spring to summer, grizzly bears across both sides of the Continental Divide and Yellowstone National Park continue to fatten up after a long winter, making wise use of the verdant landscape in the wake of the big winter of 2022-2023. 

While those same bears were slumbering back in February, the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, which host five of the six grizzly bear recovery zones, were busy tangling with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), filing petitions to pull the bears from behind the shield of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Wyoming claims that Yellowstone populations should be delisted, Montana wants bears in the North Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) removed from the ESA list, and Idaho asked for ALL grizzlies in the lower 48 to be stripped of protections – regardless of where they live. 

After entertaining all three petitions, the USFWS is now reviewing the conservation status of bears in Montana and Wyoming’s recovery zones, saying claims made by those states “may be warranted.” The Idaho Conservation League is supportive of this USFWS status assessment

However, Idaho’s petition – backed up by a ceremonial resolution (HJM 5) from our State Legislature – was dismissed due to what the USFWS called lack of “substantial scientific or commercial information.”

Now, the latest chapter in the decades-long grizzly saga is about to be written, as the State of Idaho announced plans in May to sue USFWS in response to Idaho’s delisting petition being rejected. That action could come as soon as mid-July.

Ed Cannady photo.

In addition to justification cited by USFWS when Idaho’s petition was rebuffed, ICL views Idaho’s intentions to fight those findings as ill-conceived on many levels:

  1. Delisting criteria have not been achieved for Idaho grizzly bear populations in Selkirk, Cabinet-Yaak and Bitterroot recovery zones.
  2. In 2018, a federal judge found that if USFWS moves to delist a population like Yellowstone or NCDE, they must undertake a “comprehensive review” of other listed populations.
  3. There are not adequate regulatory mechanisms or financial resources in place in Idaho that address conflict management in areas where livestock and grizzlies share the landscape, including use of nonlethal approaches.
  4. Current IDFG regulations that govern black bear hunting and trapping/snaring of gray wolves do not sufficiently consider potential impacts to grizzly bear populations (for example, earlier this month a hunter killed a grizzly after improperly identifying the animal as a black bear).
  5. Responsible requirements for food storage on federal and state managed public lands within existing or potential grizzly habitat have not been implemented.

Another regulatory note for grizzly bear lovers to file away while continuing to track recovery actions is that a federal judge has prompted the USFWS to initiate an Environmental Impact Statement to examine a range of alternatives for management of grizzlies that may disperse into the Bitterroot recovery zone from other populations (such as NCDE or Yellowstone). There have been seasonal observations of bears in that area, but thus far, no resident animals or breeding pairs have been documented there.

Additionally, ICL staff recently attended a workshop in Missoula, MT highlighting the real promise of strategies that equitably manage conflicts resulting from the presence of large predators on the landscape. We were encouraged to learn how landowners, Tribes, states, federal agencies and nonprofits/NGOs are beginning to use shared knowledge to develop and refine ways to reduce conflicts to livestock operations and associated tensions that may arise from competing social values placed on large predatory wildlife species. Among the many efforts, NGOs are identifying common ground with agencies like US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services and Natural Resource Conservation Service to use all the tools in the toolbox to minimize predator/livestock conflicts including range riders, guard dogs, real-time monitoring and emerging technologies. 

The State of Idaho would be well-served to take notice of these initiatives happening in Montana and Wyoming, focused in part, around the “4 Cs Framework” of collaboration, pre-conflict strategies, appropriate control mechanisms, and compensation. The stature of our Governor’s office, Office of Species Conservation, and the State Legislature would surely be enhanced by committing to match federal funding that now only partially compensates producers for livestock losses. They also must pursue sustained funding sources for nonlethal conflict management programs.

Thanks to protections afforded by the 1975 action that added grizzly bears to the Endangered Species list, there are now many more bears on much larger swaths of the western landscape. Regardless of how USFWS ultimately deals with petitions from Montana and Wyoming, Idaho must eventually realize that delisting actions in our state’s recovery zones will only occur after responsible steps are taken to ensure sustainable populations of grizzly bears in those areas. Those actions, coupled with earnest efforts to encourage conflict avoidance, minimization and mitigation, will be the only way forward if Idaho hopes to take over management of grizzlies from USFWS. ICL looks forward to working with the State in pursuit of that goal.

If you care about the future of grizzly bears in Idaho, take action at the button below and voice your support for a responsible management plan for grizzlies in Idaho!


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