Let's not fence Yellowstone

By CAROLINE BYRD - Wyoming Outdoor Council

In Lander, I've seen a couple of bumper stickers advocating "Let's Fence

Yellowstone." I always thought it was a joke. I mean, if you don't want to

live in a place with free-ranging wildlife and spectacular wild lands, you

can move to one of the many states that don't have grizzly bears, elk,

bison, wolves, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, moose, etc.

After all, isn't it the open spaces, amazing vistas, abundant wildlife and

soul-enriching wild lands that keep most of us in Wyoming? It's certainly

not the state's job opportunities, high pay or economic vitality!

However, based on its recently released Draft Habitat-Based Criteria for the

Grizzly Bear, it appears that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has

taken the idea of fencing in Yellowstone seriously. The agency's proposal to

protect bear habitat only applies to the "Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Recovery

Zone." For any bear that steps outside the zone's invisible boundaries -

sorry, no protection. Some 75 percent of the recovery zone consists of

protected lands in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and the

national forest Wilderness areas surrounding the parks. The other 25 percent

is multiple use national forest lands and a small bit of private lands.

While some people might think that 9,209 square miles of protected habitat

should be enough for the long-term survival of the grizzly, a close look at

where bears live and where some of the best habitat is found reveals real

problems with the zone's boundaries.

The FWS drew the boundaries of the recovery zone when grizzly numbers were

precariously low. You would think, as time went by, as we learned more about

bears and as bears began to recover and adapt to a changing landscape,

wildlife and land management agencies would have reconsidered and revised

the zone boundary. But they haven't. The line hasn't budged and as a result,

especially in Wyoming, the zone fails to consider both the distribution of

bears and the high-quality habitat they need to survive.

For example, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department trapped and radio-collared

15 grizzly bears and tracked more in the country between the Wiggins Fork

and Long Creek. The heart of this area is Ramshorn Peak, the dominant

landmark north of Dubois. The WGFD documented the importance of this area to

bears in a 1994 study of grizzly bears in the southern third of the greater

Yellowstone ecosystem. The study looked at bears north of the Togwotee Pass

Highway (Wyoming Highway 26/287). WGFD found that bear habitat use is not

restricted to the recovery area and in fact that "substantial grizzly bear

use was documented outside the recovery zone during this 2-year study." The

bears used the higher elevation recovery zone during the summer, but relied

on the lower elevation habitat outside the zone for year-round activities.

The FWS itself has recognized the importance of grizzly habitat on the

Shoshone National Forest outside the recovery zone. In the Interagency

Grizzly Bear Committee habitat analyses, bear biologist Dave Mattson called

the area around Ramshorn Peak, which is outside the zone, some of the best

grizzly bear habitat in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem because of its

abundance and diversity of important bear foods such as whitebark pine nuts,

berries and elk.

And, in the FWS's Biological Opinion on Oil and Gas Leasing and Development

in the Shoshone National Forest, the agency found that "[o]n the Shoshone

National Forest, more than 387,500 additional acres outside the designated

Recovery Zone receive regular use by grizzly bears." In their Opinion, the

FWS asked the Forest Service to provide more protection for bears outside

the zone north of the Togwotee Pass Highway. The agency promised to

re-evaluate this boundary of the zone as well as make necessary adjustments

to protect the bears and their habitat. Unfortunately, despite its promise,

the FWS never did evaluate the "[u]se of areas outside the established

Recovery Zone and its relationship to the Yellowstone grizzly bear

population's long-term viability and recovery." There were no "further

investigations and review/determination on whether the area should, in fact,

be added to the recovery zone."

Consequently, this area is still outside the recovery zone, the bear's

habitat is still unprotected and the Forest Service is planning timber

sales, roads and gas wells under Ramshorn Peak, in the core of some of the

best grizzly habitat in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The Brent Creek

Timber Sale, the Scott Gas Well and ongoing oil and gas leasing in the area

will potentially displace and threaten at least 15 grizzly bears known to

inhabit the area.

For those people who think grizzly bear populations have recovered and the

bears no longer need protection, what happens when we take away key habitat

for this many bears? Will the bear survive in the long run if we, in effect,

fence them out of important habitat they need for food and cover? Instead,

shouldn't we protect the habitat that the bears are currently relying on and

will need into the future to insure their recovery?

The FWS is accepting comments on their draft habitat-based criteria for the

grizzly bear until September 14. Write to the agency at Grizzly Bear

Recovery Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University Hall, Room

309, University of Montana, Missoula, Mont. 59812.

--------------------------

Caroline Byrd Program is director/staff attorney for the Wyoming Outdoor

Council, 262 Lincoln Street Lander, Wyo. 82520 (307) 332-7031 fax (307)

332-6899

http://www.billingsgazette.com/opinion/990825_opi02.html