On the heels of the federal government’s proposal to delist the grizzly bear population in the Yellowstone National Park area, this year’s annual report on Glacier National Park and the surrounding region shows the population continuing to hit its recovery targets.
Grizzlies in the lower 48 states were listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1975, after their historic range and population plummeted over decades of over-harvesting and habitat loss.
The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem boasts the highest number of great bears among the five geographically distinct populations in the Northwest. It covers more than 5.7 million acres in Northwest Montana and includes Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and surrounding lands.
Documented mortalities in the Northern Continental population, now estimated at 982 individuals, dropped substantially in 2015 from the two preceding years. That’s something of a return to normal, according to Cecily Costello, a research wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks who was one of the lead authors on the annual report.
“[Given] the fact that there was a lot of black-bear conflict, and even a significant amount of black-bear mortalities last year, it made people think things were pretty bad for grizzly bears as well,” Costello said Monday. “It wasn’t a bad grizzly year in terms of mortality in 2015.”
The report estimates 28 grizzlies died in 2015. Of those, 22 were male bears.
The previous year’s estimate of about 50 grizzly deaths was an outlier, Costello added, with the annual mortality average from 2004 to 2015 closer to 30.
Estimates are based on the 21 documented grizzly mortalities last year. Six were killed by automobiles, five were killed by wildlife managers for damaging livestock or other property and four were found to have been illegally poached.
One grizzly was mistakenly killed by a black-bear hunter, another was accidentally killed during an attempted capture by wildlife officials and one was killed in self defense. The rest died of unknown causes.
At the regional interagency management group’s meeting in Kalispell last December, Costello said the population could remain stable while sustaining an annual loss of 46 grizzly bears, based on current population trends.
Mortalities are only one criterion used by state and federal wildlife managers to gauge the overall health of the population. To meet the recovery targets, researchers must document reproduction in 21 of 23 geographic sub-units over a six-year period. During the past six years, all sub-units had females with new cubs.
Of 37 females monitored last year, 15 had litters, and all but one had at least one bear cub survive the season.
“In the reports, we’re trying to estimate the growth trends over time, and we want to make sure it’s generally a positive trend,” Costello said, adding that researchers use that data, along with the results of a 2004 DNA study, to estimate the total population year to year.
Regardless of other benchmarks required before a federally listed population can be classified as “recovered,” federal wildlife managers have in the past stated that no delisting proposal for the grizzlies in and around Glacier would move forward until that process unfolds in Yellowstone.
While the federal wildlife agency made its intent official last month, the path to delisting Yellowstone’s bears could stretch on for years since environmental groups have objected to the proposed delisting and indicated they may respond by filing suit.
The monitoring area for grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem includes land managed by five national forests, all of which are currently amending their long-term forest plans to allow sustainable management of the bears if and when they are delisted.
The Flathead Forest has incorporated those guidelines in its latest Forest Plan revision, which was unveiled a year ago. Forest officials expect to issue a draft environmental impact statement for the updated plan in May.
For the full 2015 grizzly monitoring report, visit fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/management/grizzlyBear/monitoring.html.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.