Delisting Issues

Everything about grizzly management and delisting is complicated. Many of these complicated issues remain debatable despite government. Click the drop-down sections below to read more.

+ Connectivity, Linkage Zones and Suitable Habitat

Connectivity and Linkage Zones

The grizzly bears of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are an isolated population. While connectivity to other populations of grizzlies to the north and west has always been viewed as a biological necessity for the health of the population, it has proven to be a difficult goal to achieve.

So federal grizzly bear managers simply decided to ignore connectivity and created an alternative plan to truck a grizzly in from another population once every decade or so.

We believe that connectivity of the GYE population to at least one other grizzly population must be achieved prior to delisting.

Connectivity and linkage zones will become more of an issue after delisting as the resumption of hunting will significantly reduce the likelihood of linkage between the various populations leaving the GYE population isolated with resulting risk of genetic issues such as inbreeding depression.

Well defined and biologically suitable linkage zones designed to connect grizzly habitat should be a prerequisite of delisting. Wildlife crossing structures need to be utilized, especially along the interstate highway system to the north and west of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. To neglect this core need of the isolated GYA population is irresponsible. Other wildlife would also benefit and contribute to a healthier, more diverse ecosystem. Human encroachment and habitat fragmentation associated with roads have long been widely recognized impediments to recovery. Reduction in vehicle vs wildlife incidents would provide financial and safety benefits to man, and reduce vehicular deaths of wildlife.

Suitable Habitat and Socially Unacceptable Habitat

The USFWS has designated vast areas as Suitable Grizzly Habitat. (add map here)

One of the phrases that has suddenly come into vogue with bear managers is "social tolerance" and the related phrase "socially unnacceptable." Much of the designated suitable habitat has been redesignated by bear managers as "socially unnacceptable" for grizzlies.

There are several problems with this. First, there doesn't seem to be a definition of "socially unnacceptable." Second, there is no scientific method designated to monitor or measure "socially unacceptable." Finally, some of these areas are so devoid of people, have so few conflicts, and are so obviously acceptable habitat to the bears themselves that the whole concept of "socially unacceptable" becomes something of a farce in these newly designated areas.

Basically use of this phrase constitutes a science-free catch-all loophole where bear managers can control spread of grizzlies, essentially at whim, by designating areas as unnacceptable.

A good example of this is in the Wyoming Range which has been recolonized by grizzlies. No one told the bears that the Wyoming Range is socially unacceptable for them, but clearly, given their presence, it is de facto suitable habitat.

+Genetic diversity and viability

Sorry, we are working on this section and haven't got it ready yet. In the meantime, please visit this page for information on this topic.

+Climate change

The elephant in the room is climate change. NPS Director Jon Jarvis has called climate change “the greatest threat we have to the integrity of our natural resources.”

Whether you agree with Director Jarvis or believe in climate change is immaterial. A warming trend over the past decades is well documented by Yellowstone scientists and is considered a component of the food resource disruptions mentioned in the Food Resources section below. (see Yellowstone Science)

Furthermore, this trend is expected to continue. Climate forecasts generated by Yellowstone National Park's own scientists are ominous and the effects on the ecosystem and the grizzlies are unclear but deemed likely to be significant.

In a section entitled "A New Status Quo" the authors state that "climate has and will continue to change substantially. Our summary of projected climate suggests the future will experience temperatures higher than any time in the warm periods of the Holocene. This rapid temperature change can result in substantial reductions in snowpack and stream runoff and increases in stream temperature, fire frequency, and mortality of currently dominant tree species. One possible future is for the system to move into a new state with little summer snow, very low stream flows, frequent and severe fire, and switch from forest-dominated vegetation to desert scrub vegetation."

"Hot, dry summers as in 1988 are expected to occur with increasing frequency throughout the 21st century and will become the norm by the latter part of the century. Such climate conditions would be similar to current conditions in the southwestern U.S. and outside the conditions that have been documented in the GYE for most of the past 10,000 years."

For those of you who aren't familiar with the southwestern U.S., according to Wikipedia "the entire southwestern region features semi-arid to arid terrain." In short, the southwestern U.S. is a desert, and Yellowstone's own scientists say they are worried that it too will become a desert within 100 years.

The USFWS Proposed Delisting Package at one point suggest that climate change could possibly benefit the GYE grizzly population, but if Yellowstone becomes a desert that would seem pretty unlikely.

Other impacts are likely be become apparent in the coming years and decades and these impacts may lead to significant additional displacement of food and habitat resources. Adding to the potential for food security disruption, recent research shows that invasive species out-compete native species in a climate change scenario.

Most scientists believe that the food source disruptions already experienced by GYE grizzlies are symptomatic of climate change and that further disruptive ecosystem-wide changes are not only possible, but likely, and will significantly impact grizzly bears.

+Food resources

It has long been recognized that GYE grizzlies have four primary food sources: whitebark pine nuts, cutthroat trout, army cutworm moths and meat. These sources have been considered so important that until recently little research had been done on other sources like berries and roots. There was little need to do so since the primary food sources were magnitudes more important to the life cycle of the bears. Why bother?

But then an amazing thing happened: two of those food sources collapsed and became functionally extinct within the bears habitat and a third appeared vulnerable to ongoing warming trends in the Yellowstone area.

An equally important development occurred in 2011 when a judge found the Fish and Wildlife Service's 2007 attempt to delist GYE grizzlies was unlawful because they hadn't adequately considered the effect of the loss of whitebark pine nuts on the grizzly population.

In that case the judge wrote that the USFWS must show it’s not taking a “full-speed ahead, damn-the-torpedoes approach to delisting” and added that “The Service must rationally explain why the uncertainty regarding the impact of whitebark pine loss on the grizzly counsels in favor of delisting now, rather than, for example, more study."

This sent government biologists scrambling to understand the other food resources available to grizzlies. They scoured the existing scientific literature for references to food sources and in February of 2013 the IGBST produced a synthesis of the available research entitled "Response of Yellowstone Grizzly Bears to Changes in Food Resources" aka the "Food Synthesis Report"

On the cover page of this report is a remarkable disclaimer:

"This report contains several references to manuscripts prepared by Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team authors and others that have been submitted to peer-reviewed journals and were in review or were in preparation for submission at the time of completion of this report. Although reference to such manuscripts is unconventional, we cite these studies because they were designed to address research questions directly related to the central thesis of this project, of which we provide a synthesis here. Release of this support prior to completion of these manuscripts is meant to ensure timely delivery of research findings to support policy and management decisions. However, findings presented here are subject to change pending any revisions that need to be addressed during the peer-review process for each of those manuscripts. Significant changes will require approval of a new product through U.S. Geological Survey’s Fundamental Science Practices."

While government scientists have documented a huge array of food resources available to omnivorous grizzlies, it is worth noting that one food source is not necessarily equivalent to another in quality and availability. Celery does not equal steak.

There are also temporal and spatial aspects to the food resource that must be considered, as well as caloric and vulnerability costs associated with obtaining alternative food sources. Walking across town in traffic to get celery is not a safe or effective way to put on weight for winter.

That's a slightly humorous take on it but that is essentially what USFWS is arguing; that the bears are fine with lower quality foods that are riskier to find and have lower nutritional value and that put them into greater contact with humans and livestock - which tends to get them killed.

Of four main food sources two, whitebark pine and cutthroat trout, have completely collapsed and their recovery is doubtful. Army cutworm moths are only available at very high altitudes and well documented climate change trends threaten to curtail their availability

These significant changes in food resources are driving grizzlies to consume more meat which in turn is putting them at greater risk of conflict with hunters and livestock with the prospect of unsustainable levels of mortality.

We believe that food source disruptions are symptomatic of climate change and that further disruptive ecosystem-wide changes are not only possible, but likely, and will significantly impact grizzly bears

And finally throw this in: The amount of fat a female grizzly has when going into hibernation is a key factor in reproduction. Less winter fat = less cubs. In a population that is currently defined as "stable", less cubs will lead to a decline in population.

+Habitat fragmentation and human encroachment

Habitat fragmentation and human encroachment have long been widely recognized impediments to recovery. They are the inevitable result of ongoing significant population growth over the last few decades.

HABITAT FRAGMENTATION

HUMAN ENCROACHMENT
Human encroachment on grizzly habitat in the ecosystem is significant and continues to increase. The human population in the GYE has more than tripled over the period that grizzlies have been on the endangered species list. We believe more needs to be done to minimize the effects of encroachment and habitat fragmentation.

+Demographic monitoring and population estimates

The USFWS is mandated by the ESA to use the best available science. Nowhere is this more important than in establishing an accurate population count and yet nowhere is it more obvious that the USFWS is NOT using the best available science.

The official estimate of the GYE grizzly population is in fact a flexible fiction as was argued in the letter to USFWS Director Dan Ashe reproduced below.

Counting methodologies are patently inadequate. The Chao2 method currently used to count grizzlies, is widely considered to be inferior to non-invasive DNA hair sample analysis. The federal biologists charged with establishing the official count have acknowledged that their current method becomes LESS accurate over time due to biases inherent in the methodology and the error factor is now approaching a 40%. That this ostensibly represents an undercount of bears and acts in favor of bears does not negate the simple fact that this is an obsolete, error prone scientific method. To spin this as “conservative management” is disingenuous and inexcusable. it is simply bad science. All aspects of grizzly management depend on this critical count. If we can’t accurately count them how can we manage them with any certainty?

We believe it is imperative to establish an accurate baseline population count using best available science prior to delisting.

Open letter to USFWS Director Dan Ashe
November 10, 2015

Dear Director Ashe,

This past week I attended the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. At the meeting it became clear that nobody, and I do mean nobody, has a clear idea of how many grizzly bears there are in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, which is charged with establishing the official count of the grizzly population, announced that the count for 2015 is 714, down 6 percent from 757 bears in 2014.

While 714 seems like a definitive number, it is not.

The IGBST establishes its of official count using a modeling methodology known as Chao2. Like most methodologies it has a margin of error. Chao2 says “we believe there are approximately 714 bears, but there might be as few as 638, and there might be as many as 793”.

So already we have a possible spread of 155 bears.

IGBST says that Chao2 is biased low and becomes less accurate over time. Team leader Frank Van Manen said that he believes that “we are underestimating by about 40 percent.”

So are there 638 or 714 or 793 or 1,110 (793 + 40 percent) grizzlies? No one knows with any certainty and now we have a spread of 472 bears.

At this point IGBST’s “best available science” starts looking more like a wild-ass guess.

How can you defend the ESA’s and the USFWS’s mandate to use the “best available science” when even the folks who do the counting freely admit that their estimates become less accurate with each passing year and may be off by as much as 40 percent?

Without a definitive number, the intentions of the ESA are subverted. If no one knows with an acceptable level of confidence what the actual population is then intelligent debate is impossible and decision-making becomes guesswork. The population count needs to be an established fact, not a flexible fiction.

Currently, delisting discussion is reduced to a clash of poorly informed opinion. Agency directors, environmental organizations, the press, and the public are all free to use the numbers that best suit their agendas, simply because the current methods are ambiguous.

This problem will persist after delisting. After all, how can anybody, with any certainty, presume to monitor what is happening to the grizzly population after delisting, if no one can say, with any certainty, what the population was at delisting?

There is a far better alternative to the chaotic situation described above: a survey of the GYE grizzly population using DNA hair analysis. Alberta has successfully used this non-invasive methodology on a landscape scale.

IGBST’s parent agency, the USGS, is familiar with this methodology. They have done this type of work in Montana and they helped Alberta set up its DNA grizzly monitoring program, which many believe represents the best available science.

Funny that we advised Alberta on using this technique, but don’t use it ourselves in the GYE.

And remarkable that Alberta found they had 2.5 times the number of bears than they had previously estimated, with a con dence factor that actually inspired con dence, not derision.

You could probably justify the investment in a DNA survey by doing a cost/benefit analysis of the potential expense of the inevitable post-delisting litigation. Greater certainty in population count might well result in less litigation expense.

Certainly the data gained by a definitive DNA survey would provide an extremely valuable data set that will be of use post-delisting as a baseline for management and as fodder for advancing scientific knowledge.

Director, the IGBST members are public servants, but they have not served you, nor the public, well.

They have thoroughly bamboozled the public, agency personnel, politicians, environmental organizations and special interest groups. Their inability to reliably perform one of their primary functions has exacerbated the delisting debate.

Ironically, it is quite possible that the IGBST has served the GYE grizzly population well, but how can anyone make that judgment when the current methodology produces such ambiguity?

The best way out of this uncomfortable situation is to establish a definitive population count using the best available science: DNA hair analysis. We believe this would serve the public interest.

Litigation, ENGO activism, social, political and media pressure, etc., might all be significantly mitigated if there was a definitive number. It could very possibly put a lot of delisting opponents into the proponent category.

The stakes are immense as this will be the highest profile delisting in the history of the ESA and its success or failure will likely have a profound effect on the future of the ESA.

Respectfully, and with full appreciation of the difficult decision your agency must make.

Kent Nelson
Executive Director
Wyoming Wildlife Advocates


NOTE: It is worth noting that Director Ashe has not responded to this letter.

+Conflict management

Conflict management is the phrase typically used referring to negative interactions between grizzlies and human interests. But if you have to manage a conflict, that means you had a conflict in the first place, that you had to react to a situation. Much greater emphasis needs to be placed on proactive conflict prevention.

There is no shortage of good information on preventing conflicts. One of the best sources is a 2009 IGBST report entitled "Yellowstone Mortality and Conflict Reduction Report" (Find it here)

This report is authored by a veritable who's who of federal biologists and is notable for its detailed recommendations regarding reduction of conflicts, 33 recommendations in all.

It is also notable for just how little effect the report had and for how few of the recommendations resulted in changes in management regimes.

Conflicts are at record levels and it is not simply because there are more bears. There are a number of factors at play. We believe that state and federal agencies have failed to adequately address prevention of conflicts with humans and livestock. We believe that a proven and effective pro-active conflict prevention regime, as opposed to reactive conflict resolution, is a prerequisite of delisting. Grizzly bear managers have repeatedly critiqued existing management methods of conflict prevention and resolution and failed to implement the very strategies they themselves have proposed to reduce conflict.

+Post-delisting oversight

Post-delisting oversight is an issue that has the conservation community seething.

After almost 40 years of effort, the USFWS wants to trust ongoing recovery of grizzlies to the tender mercies of the predator-hostile states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho - which drove the bears near to extinction in the first place.

In its delisting proposal, the US Fish & Wildlife Service has largely neglected oversight. Grizzly delisting is a political hot potato and the USFWS would really like the issue to just go away; they don't want grizzlies relisted, and despite rhetoric to the contrary, it is no secret that the states of Montana, Idaho, and especially Wyoming are hostile to predators and are much more interested in appeasing the holy trinity of special interests: agriculture, hunters and outfitters, and the extractive industries.

There are many who believe that delisting grizzlies is more about the ground they walk on than about the health and recovery of the great bears themselves. It has been estimated that delisting will open up some 2 million acres to oil and gas exploration.

In their efforts to get out of the way of these special interests, the delisting proposal has few effective oversight mechanisms. Bowing to the states desires, the USFWS has created a framework that is simply inadequate

First, there are no "hard triggers" to relist grizzlies should the population collapse. While there is a purported "hard floor" of 500 bears there is no trigger at that point that requires a status review that would lead to returning the grizzly to Endangered Species Act protection. USFWS Director Dan Ashe was asked the question "If the population drops below 500 bears will that trigger a status review?" and the response was "Well, we'd certainly take a hard look at it were that to occur."

What that indicates is that the USFWS desires that any return to ESA protection be totally at its discretion, and that just isn't good enough.

Grizzlies will face threats from anti-predator special interests, both corporate and user groups. These special interests will use their influence to create anti-predator legislation and regulation and will seek to exploit areas critical to grizzly recovery. This is not crystal ball gazing, it is already happening.

Grizzlies face a threat from state agencies which have an inherent conflict of interest between managing game species and sustaining a recovered species that preys on valued game species. The two missions are in direct opposition to each other.

+State management is a threat

Once the decision to delist has been made, one of the primary areas of concern is preparing the ground for the conditions of the post-delisting environment. This includes both requiring certain actions and policies from the states and a robust oversight regime on the federal level.

Threats from powerful special interests
Grizzlies will face increased threats from anti-predator special interests, both corporate and user groups. These special interests will use their influence to create anti-predator legislation and regulation and will seek to exploit areas critical to grizzly recovery.

State management agencies are inherently conflicted
Grizzlies face a threat from state game and fish agencies which have an inherent conflict of interest between managing game species and sustaining a recovered species that preys on valued game species. The two missions are in direct opposition to each other.

State game and fish agencies as currently constituted are inherently unsuited to management of a recovered population due to a conflict of interest ensuing from their hunter-oriented culture, traditions, and practices

Grizzly mortality is approximately 90% human caused. Hunting-related, poaching, and self defense kills are the cause of death for the vast majority of grizzlies. Federal managers have repeatedly issued recommendations to mitigate these human-caused grizzly deaths but have failed to implement, or require the states to implement them. We believe much more must be done to mitigate these threats.

The USFWS ostensibly retains responsibility for oversight of grizzlies after they are delisted but the Service has not articulated a robust oversight mechanism that will protect them from a new higher threat environment and in fact such oversight is conspicuously absent from information so far made public.

Funding for post-delisting management is not assured
Adequate funding for state management and federal oversight is not assured. The resource based economies of all three states have all taken a hit, with Wyoming, where the majority of grizzlies live, hit hardest. The revenue generated from hunting of grizzlies will not support the costs of adequate bear management. Defining and obtaining adequate funding for oversight and management should be a prerequisite of delisting.

Summary
Without robust oversight, supported by adequate and assured funding, state management of grizzlies is in and of itself a clear threat to grizzlies because the states have a culture and history of hostility towards predators and will rely heavily on trophy hunting as their primary management tool.

+Scientific integrity and political meddling

A recurring issue with the USFWS is the integrity of their science.

In a recent guest opinion retired USFWS special agent Sam Jojola writes: "Just Google the words “scientific misconduct by USFWS”, and one can see a continuous pattern of political selling out of wildlife resources, scientific fraud, whistleblower retaliation, and many cases of cronyism (catering to special interest groups like the wind power industry, Safari Club International, and others)."

A large number of scientists seem to agree. A recent petition by 968 scientists addressed to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asked that the federal government “place species conservation policy on firmer scientific footing” by using the “best available science.”

Also at issue is political influence. A 2015 report by the Center for Science and Democracy "Government Scientists Report on Scientific Integrity at Four Agencies" concluded that 73% of USFWS scientists "reported that the level of consideration of political interests was too high."

A blatant example of political meddling and bad science is the recent USFWS decision to deny Endangered Species Act protection to the wolverine, which a federal judge said “border[ed] on the absurd.” The judge pointed to "immense political pressure" from Western states that appeared to drive the government's decision not to protect the wolverine.

In the current delisting debate, the pressure is coming primarily from the Western Governors Associations's Endangered Species Act Initiative which purports to be about fixing the ESA but is really a cudgel to beat USFWS on the head with. Until last month Wyoming Governor Matt Mead was chair of the association. The WGA allows each chair of the association a project, and Governor Mead chose the ESA as his target project.

+Distinct Population Segment

+Peer review process and internal agency groupthink

We believe that peer review of government employed scientists by other government employed scientists is a farce and flies in the face of responsible and accepted scientific practice. Time and again we have seen government scientists muzzled when they have opinions that do not suit their political masters. We believe that many, if not most, government employed scientists have learned the lesson: to get along you must go along. This subverts the intents and purposes of the ESA.

+Delisting itself constitutes a threat to grizzlies

Perhaps the greatest of all threats to grizzlies is premature delisting itself, and the prospect of relisting them later.

Delisting itself will likely trigger an inevitable “significant population event”. The current population is estimated at 717 grizzlies. 674 is the agreed upon target. That equals 43 bears, 6 percent of the population, that may be viewed as excess to the population. We expect all three states to open trophy hunting for grizzlies as soon as is practical.

Post-delisting, there are several mechanisms that, singly or in tandem, could precipate or contribute to dramatic population losses. Hunting is one, overly aggressive conflict resolution and management is another. Furthermore the infamous McKittrick policy provides a get-out-jail card to anyone with enough brain cells to mutter the magic words, “I thought it was a black bear.”

All agree that having to reinitiate ESA protection for grizzlies, i.e., relisting, would be a nightmare of epic proportions. Lawyers, politics, paperwork, funding, special interests, and more lawyers. The harm to the Endangered Species Act, one of our most valuable laws, would be tremendous. The effects on the grizzly population would be similarly serious. Dozens, if not hundreds, of bears, could fall victim to the regulatory vacuum that would prevail during what would certainly be a drawn out relisting process.

As the highest profile delisting in history, much is riding on successful delisting. There is extraordinary political pressure on decision makers. And the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is at stake. It is a one-of-a-kind nearly intact conservation jewel that we insist our grandchildren will be able to experience; wild and natural. Protecting the grizzly also protects the ecosystem, which protects the grizzly bear. Circle of life stuff.

The consequences of premature delisting are extreme, not only in human costs, but in terms of long term grizzly recovery.