Grizzly bear

A grizzly bear is seen in Yellowstone National Park in this National Park Service file photo.

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The grizzly bear is one step closer to being taken off the Endangered Species list based upon federal research indicating that bears are minimally affected by losses of whitebark pine.

On Thursday in Bozeman, the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee took the first step in renewed efforts to delist the grizzly bear.

The biggest change that would accompany delisting is the establishment of hunting seasons as grizzly bear management is turned over to the states.

On a motion proposed by Gallatin National Forest supervisor Mary Erickson, the committee voted 10-4 to accept evidence that grizzly bears are not threatened by the decline of whitebark pine forests and recommended that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service write a rule for managing grizzly bears without federal protections.

Some members of the committee pushed for the decision to provide the IGBC with a recommendation by its Dec. 11 meeting.

“For Wyoming, this is a very significant day, and how we leave today could have very long-term ramifications for the state's view of this whole issue,” said Tom Ryder, Wyoming Game and Fish wildlife chief. “I don't know that waiting will provide us with any additional information.”

Representatives from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management, and Yellowstone and Teton national parks voted against the motion because they wanted to confer with staff and wait for some final results due out at the end of the month.

FWP Region 3 supervisor Pat Flowers, who is well acquainted with the challenges of decision-making regarding high-profile species such as grizzly bears, wolves and bison, cautioned the committee to be methodical, but his words fell on deaf ears.

“Procedurally and even politically, I can't believe that waiting three weeks is going to make any difference,” Flowers said. “We've just come through years of litigation, and we're likely to go through more. We want to make sure that we don't create some sort of procedural vulnerability.”

Prior to the vote, the committee — which includes representatives from state and federal agencies in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming — sat through almost two hours of research results supporting the conclusion that grizzly bears are not adversely affected by the decline of whitebark pine stands.

Grizzly bears eat a highly varied diet including insects, berries, trout and elk. In the Yellowstone area, whitebark pine seeds have been known to be an important protein source for bears in autumn when they're trying to fatten up for hibernation.

But over the past decade, climate change has caused at least three-quarters of the whitebark pine forests in the Yellowstone region to die due to increasing blister rust and mountain pine beetle infestations.

Around the same time, Yellowstone grizzly bear population growth slowed, starting in 2001, said U.S Geological Society researcher Frank van Manen.

From 1983 through 2002, the population grew at a maximum rate of 7.6 percent. Over the past decade, the maximum rate dropped to 2.2 percent.

Some suggested the change was related to loss of whitebark pine.

Van Manen presented seven studies Thursday to show that bears aren't so dependent on the pine seeds.

The majority of the studies, looking at everything from bear body fat to distances bears traveled for food, showed either no relationship to whitebark pine losses or found other factors that better explained the changes.

One of those factors is bear population density. Van Manen said shrinking bear territory sizes and more cub deaths are the result of a growing bear population that is filling in a limited landscape.

“At some point, we're reaching carrying capacity — there's going to be a limit,” van Manen said. “When we'll reach that, I don't know, but we could be reaching it now.”

Van Manen hasn't completed an eighth study looking at whether bears were more likely to die if they had to change from pine seeds to another kind of food. That's the study that Flowers wanted to wait for, due out at the end of the month.

In 2007, the Yellowstone subcommittee supported the delisting of the grizzly bear.

The bear was relisted in 2010 after a federal district judge ruled in favor of a Greater Yellowstone Coalition lawsuit saying the delisting didn't provide adequate protection and didn't consider the loss of whitebark pine as one of the bears' food sources.

Two years ago, the case went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which threw out the assertion that the delisting rule didn't provide enough protection but agreed that not enough attention had been paid to the question of whitebark pine losses.

Van Manen's research was intended to respond to the judge's ruling.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife bear researcher Chris Servheen said the USFWS would make a final decision on a delisting rule by the end of December, based upon the IGBC recommendations.

“There's no decision yet. That will depend on the input we get,” Servheen said. “If we decide to produce a new proposed rule, we will start the process immediately in 2014.”

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