MISSOULA – To understand the “Interagency” in the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, consider Bear 863.
Also known as Felicia, Felicity or the Togwotee Sow, this female grizzly has been a roadside attraction on Highway 26 east of Grand Teton National Park for several years.
This spring, so many tourists have stopped along the road to watch and photograph her that the bear and people face safety risks.
But figuring out who can do what for whom isn’t obvious.
The confusion extends to social media. The website Change.org has gathered more than 32,000 petition signatures opposing presumed plans by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for “murdering this bear and her two cubs.” The “let bears be bears” petition added 12 signatures in the time it took to write the previous sentence.
“The bear hasn’t done anything wrong, but it’s so visible, it’s causing traffic jams and people are not behaving appropriately,” FWS Grizzly Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley said at Wednesday’s IGBC summer meeting. “The problem has gotten bigger as more and more people are coming over the pass to the parks. It’s a multiagency response.”
Wyoming Game and Fish Department bear managers have primary jurisdiction of wildlife at Togwotee Pass, but grizzlies have threatened status under the federal Endangered Species Act, which ropes in Cooley’s office.
The Wyoming state agency has received help from a Yellowstone National Park bear hazing specialist who’s halfway through a 14-day attempt to discourage Bear 863 from the road corridor.
The Wyoming Highway Patrol does not have enough personnel to dedicate someone to all-day Togwotee Pass management, and Game and Fish wardens don’t have traffic violation jurisdiction. Grand Teton National Park as well as the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton national forests also have personnel trying to help.
“If nothing happens on Day 15, we won’t swoop in with traps,” Cooley said. “We’ll evaluate and see what happens next. People believe we’re going to move in and kill her. We have no plans to do that unless something drastic changes with her behavior.”
Expanding grizzly populations, burgeoning tourist activity and increasing conflicts with livestock producers this year have the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee rethinking its work plan for the coming years.
For example, a new requirement by the Montana State Legislature ordering the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks to preapprove relocation sites for captured grizzly bears will set off a complex series of conversations with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which shares oversight of wildlife in the Bitterroot Grizzly Recovery Area on the Montana-Idaho border.
Moving bears into those mountains would also involve the IGBC subcommittees of the Bitterroot, Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide recovery areas, each of which encompasses a half-dozen or more agencies.
“We know bears are coming to the Bitterroot,” Montana FWP Wildlife Division Manager Ken McDonald said. “Our goal is to get ahead of them for once.”
The Montana Legislature passed several grizzly-management laws and resolutions aimed at getting the bears removed from federal Endangered Species Act protection and reducing penalties for killing them, McDonald said.
FWP advisers warned such moves might make the U.S. Department of Interior less likely to delist the grizzly.
“That was pretty much dismissed, based on the track record of not getting delisting,” McDonald said. “It didn’t have much weight, which is a message for all of us.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried twice, in 2007 and 2017, to delist grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem around the intersection of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
About 750 grizzlies inhabit that area, which includes 9,209 square miles of Yellowstone National Park, national forests and private property.
Both efforts were rejected by federal court judges. Neither effort would have affected grizzlies in the other five recovery areas. The Northern Continental Divide Area has about 1,000 grizzlies, while the Cabinet-Yaak Area in northwest Montana and the Selkirk Area in North Idaho each has about 50. The Bitterroot and North Cascades areas in Washington have no known resident grizzlies.
A recent review of grizzly recovery in the Lower 48 states found the bear needed to retain its ESA “threatened” status, in large part because of the struggling or nonexistent populations in the smaller recovery areas, Cooley said.
“We have a new administration,” Cooley said, referring to the installation of new Department of Interior staff under President Joe Biden. “We’re still seeking guidance on what our next steps will be.”
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