The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Endangered Species Act, is recommending that grizzly bears in the Lower 48 retain threatened status in the near-term, following the recent release of a five-year status review.

According to the report, grizzly bears in two regions — the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem — have made strong strides toward biological recovery, but concerns about limited habitat connectivity, human-caused mortality, motorized vehicle use in grizzly habitat, and uncertainty surrounding future conservation efforts factored into the decision to keep grizzly bears in the Lower 48 listed.

Agency spokesperson Joe Szuzwalak said FWS is still deciding on next steps following the report’s release. He said new leadership in the Biden administration is “just getting their hands around those issues.”

“We’ll hopefully have next steps on that in the coming months,” he said.

Szuzwalak also said FWS has been tracking a bill before the U.S. Senate that aims to delist bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but won’t be taking a position on the measure as a federal agency. 

Animals protected under the Endangered Species Act are typically delisted through FWS rulemaking, though there is precedent for delisting a species via Congressional action: gray wolves in Idaho and Montana were delisted in 2011 after Congress passed a budget bill rider sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.

The report’s release was met with frustration by the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental group that’s been active in grizzly bear management issues for more than a dozen years. They say the plan lacks specificity and is overdue. (Assessments are supposed to be released every five years, but prior to this one, the agency hadn’t released one since 2011.)

“It’s frustrating that federal officials failed to provide specific and updated recovery recommendations in this long-overdue analysis of the grizzly bear’s progress toward recovery,” said CBD senior attorney Andrea Zaccardi in a press release emailed to Montana Free Press.

The report estimates that the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population numbers about 740, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem has about 1,070 grizzlies, and there are 60 or fewer in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem. An estimated 53 bears roam the U.S. portion of the Selkirk Ecosystem. British Columbia’s estimate is still in progress. No known population exists in the Bitterroots or North Cascades. 

The agency estimates there once were as many as 50,000 grizzly bears roaming the Lower 48. The bears currently occupy about 6% of their historic range in the contiguous U.S., an area that spanned 18 states stretching from Washington to Oklahoma.

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.