September 17, 2008

Grizzlies Making A Comeback In Montana

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reported Tuesday that there are now approximately 765 grizzly bears in northwestern Montana.  It is believed to be the state's largest grizzly bear population in decades, and signals that the threatened species may be on the rebound.

The five-year, $4.8 million study was supported by Montana ranchers, farmers and Republican leaders as a step toward reducing restrictions in place since 1975 on logging, gas and oil drilling and other development. 

Previous estimates had placed the number of grizzlies at around 250 to 350, while more recent data have suggested a minimum population of around 563 bears. 

However, the first-ever scientific census crushed these estimates.

"This is two and a half times the number of bears previously estimated," Katherine Kendall, the lead researcher, told the AP, adding that the results speak for themselves.

"There is no evidence that the population size was ever severely reduced..."

Supporters of the research pushed for the study as an initial step toward removing the bears from the endangered species list. The grizzly has been threatened since 1975 in the lower 48 states, which prohibits hunting is prohibited and restricts any development that could limit the bears' population.

The grizzly bear population around Yellowstone National Park was deemed recovered last year, following more than three decades of research.

"Let's make this an Endangered Species Act success ... get them off the list so we can manage them here in Montana," John Youngberg, vice president of government affairs for the Montana Farm Bureau, told the AP. 

He pointed to current laws, which fine farmers $25,000 for mistakenly shooting a grizzly bear or doing so to protect their property. 

Former Montana Republican Gov. Judy Martz said the bear had been used to block use of the state's abundant natural resources, when all along the grizzly were plentiful.  She had enlisted former Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in 2004 to help secure the study's funding, which was eventually put into part of a $1.1 million earmark for the Forest Service.

"If it is going to remove it from the list, it is money well spent," Martz told the AP.

More than 200 field workers took part in the study over 14 weeks in 2004. They gathered hair samples from 2,500 barbed-wire hair traps and 4,800 trees that the bears would rub against to scratch themselves.  The bears were lured to sampling stations by a mixture of pureed fish guts and cattle blood that was aged in 100 55-gallon steel drums for more than a year.   

In total, 34,000 hair samples were examined, a number so large that the company conducting the DNA tests had to purchase an additional building and double its staff to manage the project.

Bear experts called the project the most precise and accurate census of a bear population to date. The study also found that the bear population has been growing in both size and range, and that its diversity resembled that of grizzly bear populations in pristine habitats.

Regulation of endangered species falls under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is currently looking at the status of the bears in Montana bears' status as part of a five-year review mandated by the Endangered Species Act.

"All the things people have been doing are making a difference," Chris Servheen, the service's Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, told the AP.

"This gives us some feedback that the bears are doing really well. This was an investment in the recovery of an icon of the American West, which is the grizzly bear."

Biologists will use the census as critical evidence in determining whether the bear still requires federal protection, with a conclusion expected early next year.

However, despite the study's results, environmentalists and bear experts say it will take more than a count of the bears' population to fully recover the species. Additional research into the bears' habitat and population trends should also be conducted.


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