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Posts Tagged ‘grizzly bear’

To understate it a bit, grizzly bears have certainly been in the news a lot this summer in North Idaho. Two widely publicized incidents have left two grizzlies dead, one hunter dead, and more white-hot debate over the very rare large carnivore. If there’s a universal lesson about anything this summer, it might be that human-grizzly interactions are dangerous for humans and grizzlies alike.

After retreating from 99% of their original habitat range, grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species in 1975 in the lower 48 states.  Currently, grizzly bears are found only in a very few distinct areas in the western United States, but they include the Cabinet-Yaak range in North Idaho and northwest Montana, and the Selkirk mountains in North Idaho, northeastern Washington and British Columbia.

The number of bears in our two recovery regions is uncertain, but current estimates number from the several dozens to the several hundreds. To determine more precisely how many there are, a grizzly bear census may be coming to North Idaho next summer. Federal researchers plan to analyze DNA from hair samples captured at some 800 collection sites to be established across the Cabinet-Yaak Mountains in North Idaho and western Montana. Using DNA and mapping tools, researchers will be able to identify individual bears and their location. The 3-year study will cost more than $1.7 million.

A similar study in the region around Glacier National Park discovered more than twice the number of grizzly bears were roaming the area than were previously estimated. For this reason, much of the financial support for the North Idaho study is coming from some seemingly unlikely sources. Boundary County, Idaho and Lincoln County, Montana are chipping in. So too is Revett Minerals, which has mining interests in Troy, Montana, and has proposed the Rock Creek mine in the Montana Cabinet Mountains above Lake Pend Oreille. Why? Because if the study shows that the grizzly bear population is more robust here, then grizzly-related restrictions on mining and timber activities on federal lands eventually might be lifted.

But this research will provide only an initial baseline. Most important to bear recovery efforts will be the trend line over time.  Is the bear population increasing or decreasing? Is the biological genetic diversity of the bear population improving or not? A single census, therefore, is unlikely to prove much about the species’ recovery, regardless of the number of bears found.

Moreover, the one thing that grizzly bear research in North Idaho is already very clear about is that the leading cause of death for grizzly bears in the region is human interaction (PDF). More than 50% of grizzly deaths in the Cabinet-Yaak, and 80% of grizzly deaths in the Selkirks are a direct result of human interaction. Categories of human-caused mortality used by researchers included defense of life, management removal, mistaken identity, poaching, train or automobile collision, and “unknown but human caused” in which bears were shot but researchers could not determine the circumstances of the death or incidences of cut off radio collars where no carcass was discovered.

So, for the safety of the humans and the recovery of the bears, regardless of the outcome of the census, human-bear interactions will still need to be managed very carefully.

 

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On Tuesday evening in Sandpoint, the Bonner County Planning and Zoning Commission will hold a continuation of a hearing to approve the proposed Sandpiper Shores development at the northern end of Priest Lake. The proposal would take some 72 acres and subdivide it into 14 single family lots to include a boardwalk, beach and shared dock. The application clusters the development, purporting to protect some 56 acres of “open space,” most of which is unbuildable wetland.   At the initial hearing on July 19th, wildlife issues were at the center of debate.

In a letter submitted to Bonner County in April, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game was critical of the development, noting that the site is located in mapped moose range and includes white tailed deer winter range.  Also, the Department noted that black bear and grizzly bear are known to be present in the area, and the development would increase the potential for wildlife-human contacts.

This is significant because grizzly bears are federally listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.  According to IDFG, “Loss of grizzly bears due to human related interaction is the primary mortality factor” for the bears and stalls their recovery. The Bonner County Comprehensive Plan’s Natural Resources Chapter (a huge pdf at page 5-27) says “Ideally, no development would occur in grizzly bear habitat.”

Moreover, according to IDFG, merely preserving open space acreage is not enough.

The high wildlife values of the wetland and winter range associated with the site make it clear that this development, as proposed, will negatively affect associated wildlife resources. While providing blocks of open space is generally commendable, reserving 56.94 acres of unbuildable mapped wetland open space will not mitigate habitat loss and disturbance associated with the development.

Indeed, the clustering of housing on the upland would ruin otherwise unfettered access by wildlife to the large “open space” wetland.  Of what use is open space to wildlife if the wildlife can’t get to it? Or no longer want to get to it? Or can’t get to it without risking human interaction?  Mark Sprengel from our colleagues at Selkirk Conservation Alliance noted that wildlife would probably just avoid the area altogether — meaning that the well-functioning wetland habitat “preserved” by the developer would still be lost forever.

As the Fish and Game Department wrote in an earlier letter regarding the development, “Each new rural subdivision displaces wildlife and permanently reduces the ability of Bonner County to support future wildlife populations.”  At this particular location, this loss is unacceptable.

UPDATE 8/3: The Planning and Zoning Commission voted 4-2 to approve the subdivision. The application now goes to the Bonner County Commissioners for their hearing and final decision.

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