— This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the changes, or lack thereof, in the number and sex of grizzlies the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service anticipates will be lost due to livestock grazing — Ed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has boosted the number of threatened female grizzly bears that could be killed in a high-conflict cattle-grazing area on the Upper Green River.
Fish and Wildlife last year said it anticipated three female grizzlies would be lost in a rolling 3-year period as a result of livestock grazing. Altogether, the agency anticipated 11 grizzlies — counting males and females — would be killed or otherwise removed from the Yellowstone ecosystem population in the same 3-year timeframe.
In a “biological opinion,” dated Sept 3, the federal agency said it would no longer distinguish between male and female bears in the 11-bear ”incidental take” limit. If, however, as many as 5 bears are lost in a single year, including 3 females, Fish and Wildlife would reconsider the situation.
Increasing the female grizzly limit wouldn’t jeopardize the species in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the opinion states. Mark Sattelberg, Wyoming field supervisor for the agency, which protects the bear under auspices of the Endangered Species Act, made the determination.
“That’s the first decision we have to make — does this project cause the possibility of jeopardy of losing the Yellowstone population,” he said Thursday. “The answer is no.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service also put a cap on the number of bears it anticipates would be trapped and relocated from the grazing area. Relocations, typically done by Wyoming Game and Fish Department, will be limited to 18 in a 3-year period.
This is the first time a limit has been placed on relocations, said Wyoming Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), who has cattle that graze on National Forest land along the Upper Green River. Because of the new limit on relocations, one shouldn’t look at the decision as one that favors ranchers only, he said. He classified the new cap on relocation as a restriction on stockmen.
Fish and Wildlife has increased the grizzly mortality limit three times in five years, said Bonnie Rice of Sierra Club, who criticized the new cap. The grazing allotments are known as the highest conflict area for grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem, with at least 15 grizzly bears killed for livestock conflicts since 2010, Sierra Club said in a statement.
“In 2013, the USFWS anticipated that 11 grizzly bears would be killed over the next five years through the 2017 grazing season,” the statement said. “Yet one year and six bear deaths later, the agency has restarted the clock once again, allowing an additional 11 grizzly bears to be killed in the next 3 years.”
“Federal agencies have once again bowed to political pressure and increased the number of grizzly bears that can be killed in the Upper Green, while failing to require additional meaningful measures to reduce those conflicts,” Rice said in a statement. “Growing numbers of grizzly bears — a threatened species — are being killed on public lands in the Upper Green while both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service continue year after year to avoid real solutions.”
The Bridger-Teton National Forest permits 11,236 cow-calf pairs and 3,750 ewe-lamb pairs on nine allotments across 207,118 acres, according to Forest Service figures. In recent years there have been about 40 conflicts annually involving grizzlies and livestock, the new biological opinion shows. In 2013 two grizzlies were relocated from the nine allotments and four that got in trouble there were killed, the document says.
The new limit for female grizzlies — called an incidental take — was set because National Forest officials saw bear losses bumping up against the old limit of three female bears in 3 years.
“The incidental take of 3 female bears resulting from livestock depredations over a consecutive three year period … was approached during the first year (2013) of the three year period,” Bridger-Teton biologist Gary Hanvey wrote to Fish and Wildlife. At that rate, losses would have exceeded the cap, amounting to a violation of the Endangered Species Act and requiring a review of the grazing program.
Agencies, like the Bridger-Teton, that find themselves in such tight situations can consult with Fish and Wildlife before reaching allowable limits in an effort to avoid violations of the ESA, the biological opinion says.
A critical distinction in the new female limit is that it applies to female bears 2-years or older. Female bears have been instrumental in growing grizzly numbers under ESA protection. But they’re less important today with the ecosystem population up to as many as 741 bears, the Fish and Wildlife says.
Female mortalities ecosystem-wide are below limits, the biological opinion says. And the overall Yellowstone ecosystem grizzly population, which is stable or increasing, qualifies the species for removal from ESA protection, according to the opinion.
“These factors lead us to believe we do not need to specify a level of incidental take by gender for this project,” the opinion says.
The biological opinion also outlines how to attribute the loss of a grizzly bear that is killed or removed (not just relocated) for causing conflicts both inside and outside the grazing allotments. If a grizzly is killed for marauding livestock in the Upper Green River area but it learned to kill stock elsewhere, the loss would not be placed on the Upper Green River account, the biological opinion said.
“For livestock-related take (by lethal removal) within the nine allotments, we will attribute or assign that take to the location where the bear originally learned or exhibited livestock conflict behavior,” the opinion said. The new limits are valid through 2019.
The Fish and Wildlife Service attached four “terms and conditions” to the new limits. One requires the continued night penning of sheep in the area.
Another condition requires the Forest Service to contact Fish and Wildlife if five grizzly bears, including three or more females, are lost due to livestock conflicts in a year. In such an instance, the two agencies would review the grazing program to see what could be done.
The Forest Service also must better define its grazing monitoring schedule and must meet once a year with Fish and Wildlife to review grizzly bear conservation efforts it undertakes across the allotments.
Fish and Wildlife also recommended, but did not require, five “conservation measures” to protect bears. Those include continued briefing and education of stockgrowers and their cowboys and avoidance of grazing in high grizzly-use areas like riparian zones and berry patches. Stock growers should increase the number of riders on the range when conflicts go up, Fish and Wildlife recommended.
The Forest Service also should identify areas to relocate cattle should chronic conflicts continue — even moving them to grazing areas outside of the nine allotments, Fish and Wildlife recommended. Finally, the Bridger-Teton and ranchers should consider methods of reducing conflicts with grizzlies, Fish and Wildlife said.
Those include switching from grazing cow/calf pairs to putting only older cattle, like yearlings, on the troubled range. Older cattle are less prone to being chased, killed and eaten by grizzlies, experts say.
Other recommended methods to reduce conflicts include using guard dogs, bunching cattle together and using “aversive conditioning” to deter bears Fish and Wildlife said.
The Bridger-Teton also could increase bear security in the area by closing some dirt roads, biologist Hanvey wrote. “Additional investigations are warranted to determine if some motorized routes (especially user-created routes that are not currently identified and mapped in the current Travel Plan for the Upper Green Project area) could/should be physically closed to improve security.” He wrote. “Such closures could improve security habitat conditions for grizzlies, and could mitigate mortality potential in the Upper Green.”
Fish and Wildlife recommendations and other changes weren’t enough, Sierra Club’s Rice said.
“Conflict reduction measures have been proven to work elsewhere, and while every situation is unique, federal agencies have made virtually no effort in this latest action to require or even attempt additional measures that could be effective in the Upper Green,” she said. “Adoption of these conflict reduction measures is especially important in the Upper Green since this is currently the area of the most conflict and is expected to be of growing importance to grizzlies in the future.”
Ranchers have told of losing cattle to grizzlies on the allotments, as Daniel resident Kent Price did on Realranchers.com.
“Notice how this is a nice big calf and NOT some weak, little, sick calf like some people would have you believe that predators always eat,” he wrote under a photograph of a mauled carcass. “Typically a griz will bite a calf (sometimes they kill full grown cows or yearlings as well) across the withers (front shoulder area) and puncture the lungs and other vitals in this manner.”