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)