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Governor Gianforte calls for delisting of northern grizzly bear; defenders of wildlife oppose

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Governor Greg Gianforte announced Monday that the state of Montana has asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the grizzly bear population from the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, prompting a swift reaction from bear advocates.

Less than a week after the Northern Continental Division subcommittee discussed the state of the grizzly bear population in their recovery area, the governor of Montana said his administration wanted the NCDE population to be written off. Keeping the population on the endangered species list “would only continue to have an impact on communities, farmers, ranchers and recreationists,” Gianforte said in a statement.

We have achieved the goals set for us. It is time for the state to take over management, ”said Gianforte.

At the NCDE subcommittee meeting last week, bear biologists reported that the NCDE population is estimated to be around 1,100 bears. Biologists also reported a fairly high number of known bear deaths this year, but calculated that those deaths were not enough to affect the population in the long term. The interagency conservation plan has set a population target of 800 to 1,000 bears in the recovery area.

At least 10 grizzly bears have died outside the recovery zone, mainly east of the Rocky Mountain front, where some farmers and ranchers do not appreciate the recent appearance of grizzly bears. They are calling for the grizzly to be struck off so they can slaughter bears that come into conflict with their cattle. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and US Wildlife Services ended up killing four of 10 bears this year due to livestock depredation.

George Edwards of the Montana Livestock Loss Board said he paid ranchers a record $ 270,000 for cattle killed by predators statewide.

Bear advocates immediately opposed Gianforte’s petition, primarily based on Montana’s recent enactment of several laws allowing the mass culling of Montana’s other contentious predator: wolves.

“By asking the US Fish and Wildlife Service to remove federal protections for grizzly bears, Montana’s hostility to native carnivores knows no bounds. The current wolf slaughter in Montana shows just how ill-equipped Montana decision-makers are to decide the fate of these majestic species, whether grizzly bears or wolves, ”said Jack Horning, director WildEarth Guardians executive in a statement.

Similar efforts to de-register the population from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have failed due to the functioning of the Endangered Species Act. The US Fish and Wildlife Service does not remove populations on an ad hoc basis when they meet target goals. The agency only removes an entire species or a distinct population segment of a species from the list.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service cannot remove the species from the list because some populations are floundering, including the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk populations. As to what is meant by “distinct segment of the population”, the law is a bit murky, even if a population must be “discrete and meaningful”.

But the Gianforte administration is also asking the US Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the grizzly bear population NCDE as a separate population segment so that it can be written off.

“The courts have already ruled that there is only one grizzly bear population. Governor Gianforte is ignoring court rulings when he called for grizzly bears to be removed from the NCDE, ”said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

But the NCDE population may be in the same situation as the population of Yellowstone. Missoula Federal Judge Dana Christensen found that Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population could not be deregistered until the US Fish and Wildlife Service answered a few questions, including how the delisting of bears in an area would affect those in other regions and how bears are believed to move between different areas to ensure gene flow between populations. Without such gene flow, the separated populations would eventually suffer from inbreeding and other deleterious genetic effects.

Bears must be able to migrate between the Yellowstone and NCDE regions, while some try to find their way into the Bitterroot ecosystem. Cabinet-Yaak’s population – only around 50 bears – depended on FWP biologists transferring a few NCDE bears each year to maintain the population until the bears learned to migrate between populations on their own. This year these transfers have not taken place due to the fact that biologists are busy with so many people who are unfamiliar with bear attractants.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is currently responding to the requirements of the Christensen ruling. But now the agency may end up adding the NCDE to its analysis of possible distinct population segments. The issue will likely be a topic of discussion at the Grizzly Bear’s Interagency Committee executive meeting on Tuesday.

Mike Bader, consultant for the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizens’ Task Force, dismissed Gianforte’s petition as being 100% political.

“It’s 100% unscientific,” Bader said. “(University of Montana geneticist) Fred Allendorf convincingly argues that NCDE, Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk and all the bears that end up in Bitterroot are genetically related. So calling the NCDE a distinct segment of the population is just a political gesture. And to say that we can trust Fish, Wildlife and Parks to do a good job is a bit of a stretch. “

This is not the first time that Gianforte has lobbied for the de-listing of the grizzly bear. In 2019, as a congressman from Montana, Gianforte brought then Home Secretary David Bernhardt to Montana to ask him to remove bears from the NCDE. He also supported the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2017 decision to deregister the population of Yellowstone, along with Senator Steve Daines. Both politicians have backed various congressional bills to remove grizzly bears from the list.

On Monday, Daines again backed Gianforte’s efforts to get off the list.
“I fully support and am grateful for Governor Gianforte’s leadership on this issue and implore the Biden administration to follow the science in considering the petition and to work with Montana to bring management back to state,” Daines said in a statement.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.