Over the past few years, threatened grizzly bears have been making their way back to their ancestral homeland in the wild country of the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem along the Montana and Idaho border.
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month put the supervisors of the Bitterroot, Lolo, Salmon-Challis and Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests on notice that any grizzly that migrates into the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem has the same protections as other grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act.
While that’s certainly welcome news, as the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem provides critical connectivity between grizzly bear populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem surrounding Glacier National Park, it’s actually not new news at all; ESA protections have always traveled with the imperiled Great Bear.
The fact of the matter is that grizzlies will make their way back to the vast, wild country of the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem, if we let them. Unfortunately, national forests and wildernesses on the Idaho side of the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem are littered with bait stations — literally garbage dumped in the woods — used by hunters to lure unsuspecting black bears so they can be shot.
The general public may not know that Idaho and Wyoming still allow bear baiting within the range of grizzly bears, and Idaho continues to allow bear baiting even in wilderness. The Forest Service once regulated bear baiting practices on national forests, but in the 1990s it delegated control to the states.
At least eight grizzly bears have been shot and killed at bait stations in national forests in Idaho and Wyoming since 1995, including, in 2007, the first known grizzly to inhabit the Bitterroot in more than 50 years. At least two of the grizzlies confirmed to be roaming in the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem in recent months were photographed at bear baiting stations.
Since the Forest Service gave states the power to allow bear baiting in national forests, scientists have established a significant body of research showing baiting causes harmful and irreversible grizzly bear conditioning to human food and disrupts grizzlies’ behavioral dynamics.
This ongoing death-trap for grizzlies is unacceptable. When the Forest Service changed its policy to allow state control of bear baiting practices, it did so under a legal agreement that any killing of grizzlies would require the agency to re-evaluate the program. Now, after multiple grizzly bear deaths, it’s long past time for the Forest Service to prioritize protecting this threatened native species by ending state control of bait stations on federal public land. That’s why Wilderness Watch, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop the killing of grizzly bears at bait stations.
As our attorney, Pete Frost with the Western Environmental Law Center, said when we filed our lawsuit, “The confirmed grizzly killings at bait stations are more than enough to trigger the Forest Service to reevaluate its policy delegating these decisions to states. Safe passage for grizzlies to the Selway Bitterroot ecosystem is critical to their recovery, and the Forest Service is required to reassess whether to allow states to control bear baiting in our national forests.”
Given bear baiting’s harmful effects on threatened grizzly bears, we want the Forest Service to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to re-evaluate whether bear baiting decisions should be up to states, and whether baiting is too harmful to threatened grizzly bears to continue.
Spoiler: It is.
While we celebrate the return of the Great Bear to the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem, let’s make sure we give threatened grizzlies a fighting chance by ending unethical bear baiting within our national forests and designated wilderness areas.
George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch, a national conservation organization based in Missoula.
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