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Zinke works to delist Yellowstone’s grizzly population

by KATE HESTON
Daily Inter Lake | July 25, 2023 12:00 AM

The House Appropriations Committee approved July 19 U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke’s amendment to delist the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Grizzly from the Endangered Species Act.

The amendment was added to the fiscal year 2024 Interior, Environment and Related Agencies funding bill and was approved by a voice vote in committee. The bill will advance to the House Floor in September.

“The science is clear, the Greater Yellowstone population of the grizzly has recovered,” Zinke said last week. “We know it, the scientists know it and Montanans know it.”

Zinke has long pushed to see grizzlies in Montana dropped from the Endangered Species Act. As secretary of the Interior under former President Donald Trump, Zinke effectively removed the Yellowstone grizzly from the endangered species list. By August 2018, however, a federal judge had restored the protections.

In February, Zinke, now back in Congress, introduced the Grizzly Bear State Management Act of 2023 along with Rep. Harriet Hagemann, R-Wyoming. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

The legislation, if passed, would require the Interior Department to reinstate the 2017 final rule removing the Yellowstone grizzlies from the federal list of endangered and threatened species within 180 days of enactment. Zinke’s amendment to the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies funding bill is another means to the same end.

Zinke said he believes the grizzly population in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem has recovered as well but is waiting for the completion of studies to prove it. If research bears that out, Zinke plans on bringing another amendment to the appropriations committee to delist that population as well.

“The studies are clear and I'll be aggressively delisting if the studies show that the population has, in fact, recovered,” he said.

A plethora of environmental and conservation groups disagree with Zinke’s outlook. While Montana is headed toward a recovered grizzly bear population, it's not there yet, said Lizzy Pennock, a carnivore coexistence attorney with conservation group WildEarth Guardians.

“What we want to see, and what recovery would really mean, is a connected population of grizzlies across the West,” Pennock said.

While individual populations may seem recovered, the population as a whole is not at that point, according to Pennock. Delisting the Yellowstone bears would be detrimental to the species’ survival and success.

“This is one more, in a series of efforts that we’re seeing from Congress recently, to take what should be the Fish and Wildlife Services decisions into their own hands… But these people in Congress are not scientists, they are not experts,” she said.

Pennock said that the Fish and Wildlife Service is performing its 12 month review of the grizzly population in response to petitions from Montana and Wyoming to delist the species. The federal agency has not come out with official results.

Gov. Greg Gianforte last week said that the state was ready to manage the grizzly bear population in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem once they are delisted.

The announcement came after a ceremonial signing of Senate Bill 295, sponsored by Sen. Bruce Gillespie, R-Ethridge, which the governor made law earlier this year. The legislation directs the state to manage the bears at levels necessary to maintain the delisted status, doing so by sticking to an established mortality threshold.

The bill lets livestock owners take — or kill — a grizzly when it is threatening or attacking livestock. It received opposition during the legislative session, specifically for focusing on lethal control of the bears.

If grizzlies are delisted, they are going to be hunted, Pennock said. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the state management plan talk about all the different kinds of hunting that can happen under a mortality threshold, she said.

If Montana allows for grizzly bear hunting, bears who are moving between populations, increasing connectivity, could be killed, preventing the population from actually recovering, Pennock said.

Connectivity is important to the overall recovery of the species, Pennock said, because it leads to grizzlies exchanging genetics, making them more resilient.

Pennock also said poaching increases dramatically when legal hunting is an option, adding another potential threat to bear numbers if grizzlies are delisted.

Politicians on both the federal and state levels have expressed confidence that the bear populations are recovered.

“After decades of work, the grizzly bear has more than recovered in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which represents a conservation success,” Gianforte said in a press release. “As part of that conservation success, the federal government accepted our petition for consideration earlier this year to delist the grizzly in the [ecosystem], an important step toward delisting. The state is well-prepared to manage this iconic American species.”

Grizzly bears were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1975.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.

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