Grizzlies seen on the National Elk Refuge, which includes elk and bison hunting areas. PHOTO BY TURE SCHULTZ/USFWS


Yellowstone grizzlies’ status on the ESA
“Going forward, it’s a very social based decision making process, a very political process,” Jacobsen said.

In Sept. 1975, four populations of grizzly bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This designation implied the species was likely to become endangered in the “foreseeable future.” One of these populations existed in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). Bears in the GYE recovered significantly, from numbers in the low hundreds to an estimated population of 740 provided by Morgan Jacobsen, Information and Education Program Manager with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Region 3.

When an animal’s population falls below two percent of its original quantity, they are listed under the ESA. The act includes sections guiding the protection species receive.

Once listed, a recovery plan is developed based on the science surrounding the species at the time. The first recovery plan made for Yellowstone grizzlies was in 1982 and revised in 1993, Jennifer Fortin-Noreus, subject matter expert with United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), said. YNP revised this plan in 2007 and 2017. Criteria including a minimum population size, distribution of female bears and mortality thresholds are considered in recovery plans. Securing a core habitat is important, especially for bears, since they require a lot of space uninfluenced by human recreation.

Estimating population is based on the quantity of female bears and their cubs. Since females are the reproductive agents, if growth is seen here it can be assumed the entire population is growing, the United States Geological Survey’s website provided.

Bears do not want a lot of company or competition. They start to expand landscape boundaries when they cannot find a home unoccupied, Danielle Oyler, Education Coordinator for the Montana Bear Education Working Group, said. “Female bears, when they’re born, they tend to set up their home ranges closer to their mothers and male bears tend to go further away,” Oyler said, explaining how this helps spread out the population. As bears expand out of the demographic monitoring area, the land continues to be an area of conservation.

With recovery, bears started to move out of YNP, part of their demographic monitoring area. “That’s just the nature of wildlife. As you get more animals they occupy a larger space on the landscape,” Jacobsen said.

Listing and delisting of the GYE grizzly population after numbers increased has fluctuated. In 2017 the Trump Administration, by means of USFWS, delisted grizzlies in the GYE. USFWS was sued immediately by environmental and tribal groups. September 2018 restored protections for these grizzlies under ESA, and they currently are listed as threatened. Right now, a lawsuit is in progress to determine next steps.

ESA is credited with much of the grizzly population’s biological recovery. There are certain milestones that must be met before an animal is delisted. “The goal is to recover population so it can be successful on its own without the intervention of the government and assistance of all the agencies,” Oyler said.

When looking to delist a species components including biology, quantity, habitat and human tolerance of animals on the landscape are considered. Livestock, grazing, agriculture, residential development, cultural and tribal ties are interests taken into consideration as well.

Once recovered, the ESA requires five years of postdelisting monitoring, FortinNoreus explained. With bears’ long lives and females reproducing every three years, the monitoring period has to be a significant amount of time. Data is reviewed annually, habitat management is enforced and states agree to mortality limits to, “make sure mortality remains sustainable so that the population never got back to the place of needing listing again,” Fortin-Noreus said.

From an article on Time Magazine’s website, the Trump Administration announced changes to the ESA that would make economic factors of categorizing a species as endangered or threatened a valuable consideration. Species listed as threatened will no longer receive the same protections as endangered species as they had in the past. Protections will be administered on a case-by-case basis. The changes are set to go into effect this month.

“Going forward, it’s a very social-based decision making process, a very political process,” Jacobsen said.

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