On Jan. 18 the Western Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of three Montana-based organizations against a smattering of federal land and wildlife management agencies and officials. Their complaint? Euthanizing or relocating problem grizzly bears actively works against species recovery goals under the Endangered Species Act.
WildEarth Guardians and Trap Free Montana, both of which lean toward the anti-hunting and anti-trapping direction, joined with Western Watersheds Project, an organization that denounces public-land livestock grazing, as plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed in Montana District Court. They mainly challenge activities of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, commonly known as APHIS. The Wildlife Services branch of APHIS offers predator management assistance out of its state offices, largely for livestock producers. Dalin Tidwell, director of the Montana state office, is among the defendants named in the suit. He is joined by the Deputy Administrator of APHIS Wildlife Services, the secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and APHIS, the USDA, and USFWS at-large.
“This case challenges Wildlife Services’ May, 2021 decision to continue its predator damage management (“predator removal”) program in Montana,” reads the lawsuit, “which involves the use of traps, snares, aerial shooting, chemicals, poisons and other methods to capture and kill native predators, including threatened grizzly bears.”
Grizzly bears are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. There are six distinct recovery zones, four of which are either partially or fully located in Montana. One recovery goal is to create connectivity between the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem populations, which would improve genetic diversity and strengthen the overall health and vitality of both bear populations. The NCDE is currently home to an estimated 1,114 bears and the GYE houses around 1,069, according to the most recent USFWS report on grizzly bear recovery.
“The lawsuit filed today maintains that Wildlife Services and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately consider and analyze how killing and removing dispersing grizzly bears (including females) moving between Montana’s recovery zones is adversely affecting the species’ long-term recovery in the region,” a press release from WildEarth Guardians says.
The USFWS report shows that connectivity between the NCDE and GYE populations has steadily improved in recent years. As of 2020, the two populations were less than half as far away from each other as they were 14 years prior, just over 35 miles.
“Natural connectivity is expected to occur in the near future as both the GYE and NCDE populations expand in distribution,” the report says. “Based on 2020 distributions, the two populations are now only 57 km apart … this distance has steadily and significantly decreased in the last decade as they were approximately 122 km apart in 2006.”
The groups are also concerned by a lack of grizzly bears in the Bitterroot Ecosystem, another one of the six recovery zones that is mostly located in eastern Idaho but covers a small sliver of southwestern Montana. Currently, there is no known population of bears in this area.
“The best available science reveals … the bears’ absence from the Bitterroots remains a threat to long-term recovery of the species in the lower 48 States,” WELC attorney Matthew Bishop says in the WildEarth Guardians press release. “But the agencies aren’t taking this into account before killing and removing dispersing bears.”
According to the 2021 recovery report, agency biologists don’t seem too worried about the lack of bears in the area right now. They point out the Bitterroot is within the furthest dispersal zones of three different recovery areas: the NCDE, the GYE, and the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, which is home to a population of at least 50 bears. That means bears from those three populations will likely continue moving into the Bitterroots over time.
“We expect grizzly bears to naturally recolonize the [Bitterroot Ecosystem], albeit slowly,” the report says.
Loss of Livestock
Meanwhile, human-grizzly conflicts are on the rise, although both violent attacks and human fatalities are actually lower than they used to be, according to an in-depth Outdoor Life report on bear conflicts last year.
Livestock haven’t been as lucky. In 2019, 61 cattle, 52 sheep, and five llama and/or swine were confirmed as killed by grizzly bears, according to data the Montana Livestock Loss Board shared with Outdoor Life. Another 35 cattle, 13 sheep, two guard animals, a horse, and four llama and/or swine are suspected victims of grizzly bear attacks.
But these numbers don’t necessarily paint a full picture of the situation. According to MLLB executive director George Edwards, only about half of investigation requests end with a confirmation.
“We use USDA Wildlife Services for all of our investigations,” Edwards writes in an email. “It can be an extensive process to verify a loss.”
Management by the Numbers
APHIS Wildlife Services in Montana intentionally euthanized six grizzlies—five with a firearm and one with a snare—according to the 2021 program data dashboard. They also trapped and freed and/or relocated 13—five with snares and eight with culvert traps. These management methods are legal under the special section 4(d) rule of the Endangered Species Act, which “prohibits the ‘take’ of grizzly bears in the lower 48 States unless done…for the removal of a ‘nuisance bear,’ which requires a ‘demonstrable but nonimmediate threat to human safety’ or when a bear commits ‘significant depredations to lawfully present livestock, crops, or beehives,’” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit came one day after Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced that three grizzlies that had been euthanized last year for poor health and neurological problems ended up testing positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza.
APHIS declined a request for comment, noting that the agency doesn’t speak on pending legislation.