MISSOULA – Montana’s Fish and Game Commission unanimously endorsed an agreement with Idaho and Wyoming to manage grizzly bear hunting around Yellowstone National Park, should the states get oversight of the federally protected animal.
The commissioners also approved developing a plan to count and monitor grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which lies entirely within Montana and holds the largest population of grizzlies in the Lower 48 states. That rule would be necessary if the federal government grants Gov. Greg Gianforte’s petition to delist grizzlies in that ecosystem.
Both measures anticipate the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removing Endangered Species Act protections from grizzly bears, which have been in place since 1975. The most recent five-year grizzly recovery update, however, raised doubts that the states had adequate regulatory mechanisms in place to keep grizzlies from sliding back into threatened or endangered status.
Two attempts by FWS to delist grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2007 and 2017 failed in federal court. At last week’s Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting, FWS officials indicated there are no plans to make another delisting attempt.
Under Endangered Species Act protection, grizzlies have been closely studied in six ecosystems, or recovery areas. Only the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems, however, have seen significant population growth. The two areas have about 2,000 grizzlies combined, up from an estimated 600 or less in 1975.
The Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk ecosystems in northwest Montana and North Idaho each have around 50 grizzlies. The Bitterroot Ecosystem on the Montana-Idaho border and the North Cascades Ecosystem in Washington have no confirmed resident grizzlies.
Under the tri-state agreement, the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear distinct population segment would occupy a wobbly square enclosing 19,279 square miles. That’s a little bigger than the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Its corners run roughly from Butte and Billings south to Casper and Rawlins in Wyoming and east to Pocatello .
That area holds an estimated 1,000 grizzlies, depending on what method of counting is used.
The agreement assumes it must have a minimum of 500 grizzlies to have genetic diversity and acceptable numbers of breeding females. It intends to manage the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to have “a relatively stable population around 932 grizzly bears.”
The agreement covers two actions. One would commit the three states to moving at least two grizzlies from outside the ecosystem into that area to boost the genetic fitness of the Greater Yellowstone bear population by 2025.
That would probably happen by trapping and moving grizzlies from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, unless at least two bears make the move on their own.
The second concerns how the three states would coordinate hunting quotas so they don’t dip under minimum population size, kill too many females or overlook bear deaths by other means. Hunting in all states would stop if the grizzly population went below 831 animals. Females with young would not be hunted.
Based on share of landscape within each state, Wyoming would get to hunt 58% of each year’s available grizzly quota, Montana would get 34% and Idaho would get 8%.
When a similar agreement was set up in 2018, that worked out to 12 grizzly hunting tags in Wyoming, six in Montana and one in Idaho. Montana officials opted not to attempt a grizzly hunting season that year. Idaho and Wyoming both sold tags for their respective seasons, but saw them canceled when a federal judge ruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service GYE delisting rule was flawed.
The NCDE rule commits Montana to keeping around 800 bears in the mountainous region extending from Glacier National Park south to Missoula. It encompasses the Flathead and Blackfeet Indian reservations, as well as the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
The proposed rule also sets limits for how many grizzlies can die before hunting would have to stop, but uses a different population estimation system and doesn’t define any hunting quotas.
“Delisting would allow the commission to authorize hunting in a manner consistent with management objectives,” the proposed rule states. “To ensure the grizzly bear would remain in recovered status with state management, the regulatory mechanisms are most effective if they indicate how the state will manage populations, including when hunting is no longer viewed to be appropriate.”
Those other regulations could cloud Montana’s claim to protect grizzly populations. For example, the commission on Tuesday also reviewed plans to allow hunters to chase black bears with dogs, over warnings that such activity in occupied grizzly habitat risked harassing or killing the protected species by mistake. That could trigger lawsuits threatening all of Montana’s black-bear hunting opportunities, speakers warned.
The commission votes, which came at the end of a 10-hour meeting, drew little public participation.
“We feel recovery has occurred in both the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide,” Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife Executive Director Jeff Darrah told the commission. “Montana does not need to be the sending area or breeding ground for all ecosystems.”
Lauren James Monroe of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council said the Tribe did not oppose federal delisting, but advised the council that the Blackfeet did not support hunting grizzlies by either its own people or non-natives. Rather, Monroe said the Tribe looked forward to reasserting its sovereign rights to manage wildlife within its territory.
Michele Dieterich of Hamilton, Montana, a member of the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council in 2020, told the commissioners they should hold off attempting to delist the grizzly before communities in grizzly country had put bear-awareness programs in place.