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Federal agencies fail grizzlies once again in the Upper Green

For the third time in five years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has increased the 'incidental take,' or the number of grizzly bears they anticipate will be killed, as a result of conflicts with livestock in the Upper Green area of the Bridger Teton National Forest in northwest Wyoming. The Upper Green has the highest number of conflicts in the entire Greater Yellowstone region, yet the agency has once again failed to require any meaningful measures to reduce those conflicts with livestock being grazed on public land. At least fifteen grizzly bears have been intentionally killed in the Upper Green because of conflicts with livestock since 2010.

Grizzly-bear-in-yellowstone_USFWSphoto courtesy National Park Service

Because Yellowstone grizzlies are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), any federal action that could jeopardize the continued existence of the species and/or its habitat must be evaluated. If it is determined that the action (in this case, livestock grazing), will not jeopardize the species but could result in ‘take’ of the species, the take must be quantified and an exemption from the Act is granted.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly raised the number of bears that can be killed in the Upper Green while failing yet again to require measures to reduce conflicts. The title itself of the just-released decision tells the story: “Biological Opinion for the 2014 Supplement to the 2013 Supplement and 2010 Amendment to the 1999 Biological Assessment for Livestock Grazing on the Northern Portions of the Pinedale Ranger District.” In 2011, the incidental take limit of six bears was exceeded the following year, even though the term of the take statement was 10 years, through 2020. In 2013, a new take statement upped the take to 11 bears, which was supposed to be through 2017, but by earlier this month, six grizzlies had already been killed. And now in 2014, the agency has allowed another 11 bears to be killed in the next three years. According to the agencies, the Yellowstone grizzly population is ‘recovered,’ (though it remains on the Endangered Species List), and the Upper Green grizzlies are viewed as ‘extra’ bears.

Sierra Club and several other non-governmental organizations are pushing the agencies for more requirements to actually reduce conflicts, instead of ignoring the problem and simply raising the take. The Forest Service, as the agency that grants grazing permits on the lands the agency manages, has the authority to require livestock producers to do more to reduce conflicts. So does the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the ultimate authority over species protected under the ESA.  The only meaningful measure in recent years that has been required, night penning of sheep, has been effective in reducing conflicts when done correctly. Now, however nearly all the conflicts are with cattle, and nothing further is being required, or even attempted, by either agency to resolve conflicts between grizzlies and cattle.

Though every situation and landscape is unique, conflict reduction measures have been proven to work elsewhere. Altering grazing patterns, having more riders with livestock, use of guard dogs and other methods have been effective. Federal agencies and the producers who graze their cattle on public lands in the Upper Green should be actively working to find solutions instead of ignoring the problem and killing more bears, particularly a threatened species trying to survive on public lands. The Upper Green has more conflicts than anywhere else in Greater Yellowstone. This is where solutions are needed most. But unfortunately for grizzly bears, 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 avoiding the hard work of finding real and lasting solutions.

Additional background: 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly increased livestock-related incidental take of grizzly bears in the Upper Green: 

USFWS 1999 Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, 5 grizzly bears; met or exceeded.

USFWS 2011 Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, 2011-2020: 6 grizzly bears within any 3 consecutive years; exceeded in 2012.

USFWS Amended Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, September 2012 through 2012 grazing season: 3 grizzly bears

USFWS 2013 Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, 2013-2017: 11 grizzly bears in any 3 consecutive years, with no more than 3 of the 11 being females; 6 bears, including 2 females, killed by August 2014. 

USFWS 2014 Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, 2014-2019: 11 grizzly bears in any 3 consecutive years

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