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Recovering Grizzly Bears - Proposed Changes Fall Short for Real Recovery

Christine Wilcox

Posted July 3, 2013

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently proposed revisions to its Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan.  These revisions include changes to where and how they count grizzly bears and what the mortality limit should be based on these counts.  One might think this is a good move, especially in light of the grizzly bear study team’s report last September and new research by demographic scientists, both of which indicate that the methods currently used to count bears and study trends in population growth are flawed.  But the proposed changes fall short of what is needed to ensure that the bears living in Yellowstone and surrounding areas are not declining in numbers because of the loss of whitebark pine as a food source, excessive mortalities due to conflicts with humans, and other factors that create an uncertain future for bears.

Bears in Teton 6 Feb 2013.jpg

The Service already knows that there are problems with the methods they are currently using, but the proposed changes to the Recovery Plan don’t provide a solution to these problems. In fact, rather than suggesting a new methodology, the Service proposes using whatever methodology they choose at any given time. This “trust us” approach would prevent independent scientists and the public from commenting on the method they choose.  Similarly, the Service is also proposing to set mortality limits when and how they choose to without public input.  Unless those limits are calculated with a clear and reliable methodology, it could spell big trouble for bears.

Comments to the proposed revisions flooded in recently and are being combed through by the Service now.  Many of these address the last revision proposed by the Service to shrink the area in which bears are counted, which will further complicate the problem of understanding how the population size is changing over time. 

The target number for bears and the mortality thresholds the Service has set are all dependent on the assumption that the population has been increasing.  However, recent research suggests that this may not be the case.  It is likely that the reason more bears are seen and counted is twofold: 1) bears are using the landscape differently in response to changing food sources and 2) more effort is being put into looking for bears.  The authors explain that if these two factors are not carefully corrected for, then the population may appear to be growing or stabilizing when in fact it could be declining.

Given the tremendous amount of uncertainty not only in the Service’s current methodologies, but in the very status of the population, the proposed revisions to the Recovery Plan are woefully inadequate.  Rather than removing themselves from public accountability and continuing to use flawed methodology, the Service needs to come up with solutions guided by the best available science and remain under the scrutiny of the public.

(Photo: Christine Wilcox)

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