I almost fell out of my chair when I heard U.S. Sen. Steve Daines question Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on grizzly bear science. Relying on criteria in a nearly 30-year-old recovery plan (that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now concedes is outdated), he insisted grizzlies in the Yellowstone region are now fully recovered since the population is likely over 500.
This question reveals Sen. Daines knows very little about grizzly science and recovery. Not a single, published peer-reviewed study suggests an isolated population of 500 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone region is recovered. In fact, both the District Court in Montana and the Ninth Circuit recently reviewed this science, and even under a highly deferential standard of review came to the same conclusion. This was a unanimous decision from four independent judges.
I encourage Sen. Daines to review the science, talk to the grizzly bear biologists and – at the very least – review the courts’ recent opinions before engaging in such a public display as his aggressive questioning of Sec. Haaland.
Yes, grizzlies are doing better in the Yellowstone region and we should be thankful for such gains. But threats remain and more work is needed. Grizzlies only occupy 2% of their historic range in the lower 48 states, and in Montana the few subpopulations that remain are still isolated from one another.
The best available science says an isolated population of even 1,000 bears is not recovered – at least not in the long term. Sen. Daines insisted the Yellowstone population is at “carrying capacity” but that is entirely a figment of where you draw the artificial line around the isolated population.
There is also no scientific or legal support for Sen. Daines’ proposal to remove protections for grizzly bears simply because a single subpopulation or two in Montana is doing well. We have to recover the species as a whole, restore meta-population dynamics, and avoid removing Endangered Species Act protections for species by Balkanization – one subpopulation at a time.
I suspect (and hope) recovery of grizzlies in the lower 48 states is something most Americans support. But it won’t be easy, especially in the age of climate change and other threats. Sufficient habitat must be secured and connectivity must be restored between grizzlies in the Yellowstone and Glacier regions. Grizzlies must also return to their historic range in Idaho’s Selway-Bitteroot. But this hasn’t happened and Idaho is adamantly opposed to the idea. Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming also won’t commit to restoring connectivity between grizzly bear subpopulations before removing protections. In other words, the very states that insist on removing grizzly bears’ protections won’t take the steps needed to achieve that goal. This is why when it comes to grizzly bear recovery, the states are often their own worst enemies.
Sen. Daines is certainly entitled to disagree with how grizzly bears are being managed in Montana and justified in asking Sec. Haaland tough questions during her confirmation hearing. But he should do his homework beforehand.
Matthew Bishop is an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center in Helena who has practiced wildlife law for nearly 23 years.