Plan looks to preserve griz habitat, claims climate change might help bears

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A sow grizzly and her cubs feed in a huckleberry patch in this file photo.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed off on plan May 16 that looks to maintain grizzly bear habitat and recovery along the Continental Divide even after the bear is removed from the Endangered Species List.

The Habitat Recovery Criteria for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes about 8 million acres of land along the Divide from Glacier National Park south to Ovando, looks to maintain road density and other standards on federal lands, though it does include some wiggle room.

Roads and bears over the years have been a controversial subject, as federal land agencies — most notably the Forest Service, have either closed or completely torn out hundreds of miles of dirt roads that once criss-crossed the Forest. Studies have found that roads and grizzlies don’t mix — not because grizzlies won’t cross roads — they will — but because open roads often result in poaching or other forms of bear deaths due to interactions with humans.

This plan keeps road densities at a 2011 baseline, when road densities across the landscape were low and bear populations were estimated to be growing about 2 to 3 percent a year.

As of 2017, it was estimated there were about 1,029 bears in the NCDE. Of that population, more than 300 live in Glacier National Park.

The document sets parameters for both open and temporary roads in secure core grizzly habitat on federal lands, allowing a 5 percent temporary increase in open roads and a 3 percent increase in temporary roads and two percent temporary decrease in secure core habitat as long as it doesn’t exceed the 10 year running averages.

This would allow for some road building for projects like timber sales or the opening of a road to allow for summer firewood cutting.

In addition, the plan does allow for more recreational sites on federal lands over time. Under the criteria, a new campground, campground expansion or other overnight facility, such as a cabin, could be added in each bear management unit once every 10 years.

The Service defends this measure by saying this would allow for campgrounds to expand over time. It argues that campgrounds generally aren’t the problem with bears — it’s the management of garbage and other attractants. If campgrounds are properly managed,bears generally aren’t a problem, it argues.

It also calls for continued habitat monitoring on not just state, federal and tribal lands, but on private lands as well as more subdivisions are built.

There were a host of other subjects touched upon in the 54-page document, including grazing allotments, monitoring of roads, and expansion of bears into other regions, like the Selway-Bitterroot. One interesting facet is the discussion on climate change — the document suggests that in some instances, climate change, and increased fire regimes, could be beneficial to bears in the long run, as it could result in more berry bushes and other foods. It also notes that grizzly bears are adaptable omnivores and they have a wide-ranging diet.

“Most grizzly bear biologists in the U.S. and Canada do not expect habitat changes predicted under climate change scenarios to directly threaten grizzly bears. These changes may even make habitat more suitable and food sources more abundant. However, these ecological changes may also affect the timing and frequency of human grizzly bear interactions and conflicts,” it notes.

For example, with a warming world, bears may come out of dens earlier, increasing the potential for run-ins with humans.

“Increased fire frequency has the potential to improve grizzly bear habitat. Low to moderate severity fires may be the best for short-term improvements, while high severity fires can produce long-lasting berry fields if the severity does not damage rhizomes,” it argues.

But it also notes that prolonged heat and drought would also hurt berry production.

Huckleberries and other berries, like serviceberries, are a main food source for bears, particularly as they look to fatten up for winter.

A formal delisting of the NCDE grizzly population is expected this fall.

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