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Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider making a state rule to keep at least 800 grizzly bears in the northwestern part of the state, while advocates of long-term grizzly protection asked the state to go even further.

On Thursday, the commissioners agreed to start formal review of an interagency conservation strategy’s population guidelines for grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) between Glacier National Park and Missoula.

The strategy's Chapter 2 details how those grizzlies must be counted, marks the population thresholds they should stay above and commits the state to keep trying to link NCDE bears with grizzlies in other parts of the Rocky Mountains.

“Chapter 2 covers the demographic objectives, and that’s the area where Fish, Wildlife and Parks has authority,” FWP Wildlife Chief Ken McDonald told the commissioners in Helena.

Other parts of the conservation strategy declare how state, federal and tribal agencies will share responsibility for keeping grizzly bear populations viable if and when they lose Endangered Species Act protection. 

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee reviewed numerous updates to the 2013 draft conservation plan earlier this summer. Because the Chapter 2 bear-counting methods had so many changes, FWP Director Martha Williams proposed putting it through the agency's rule-making process to give it more public vetting. 

The U.S. Forest Service had responsibility for another chapter dealing with habitat needs for grizzly bears. Flathead National Forest staff developed habitat-based recovery criteria for the bears in its national forest plan update, which had its own channels for public participation.

That did little to mollify critics like Swan View Coalition Director Keith Hammer, who displayed a 2016 letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stating the entire conservation strategy would get a public review. The current strategy got a major revision from its 2013 draft version.

“Every chapter was subject to changes,” Hammer said. “It’s good to have this public comment on this small portion. But it is not the full public review that was promised by FWS.”

The Montana commission’s action on Thursday starts a lengthy administrative rule-making process. After the rule request gets registered with the Secretary of State on Aug. 14, a 60-day public comment period will run from Aug. 24 to Oct. 24. That will include four public hearings, including one in Missoula sometime in September.

The comments will get reviewed and incorporated into a final version of the rule in late fall, followed by another appearance before the commission. If everything stays on schedule and the commissioners approve the final version, it would take effect on Dec. 21. Then it would become an official part of how Montana manages grizzly bears and keeps their numbers strong.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has its own schedule for delisting the approximately 1,000 grizzly bears in the NCDE. FWS Grizzly Recovery Coordinator Hillary Cooley said that rule-making effort also has an end-of-2018 target.

“For us, (a Montana FWP rule) is a regulatory mechanism we can rely on to enforce the continued recovery of the grizzly,” Cooley said. “We look at that in our threat analysis. We want to make sure there’s some regulation or law, some state commitment to make sure the population doesn’t drop below recovery levels.”

Grizzly bears throughout the lower 48 states received threatened species protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, when the population was estimated below 400 in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. More than 50,000 roamed North America from northern Quebec to western Mexico before pioneer settlement in the 1800s.

FWS last July delisted grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where about 750 bears live in and around Yellowstone National Park. That move has been challenged in federal court. It also triggered the start of grizzly hunting seasons in Idaho and Wyoming this fall.

McDonald said the Montana commissioners did not have to consider hunting policies with the NCDE delisting process.

“That would be some time down the road, if the commission decided to go there,” McDonald said. “And hunting would be another type of mortality that would have to fit under the threshold (of Chapter 2 limits).”

Chapter 2 of the conservation strategy sets out three objectives:

• a minimum threshold of 800 grizzlies thoroughly distributed across the 8 million acres of the core NCDE.

• mortality levels set for bears each year before the state must react. Mortality includes grizzlies killed after getting in conflicts, being hit by vehicles or dying in hunting seasons; as well as living bears removed from the ecosystem such as cubs sent to zoos after their mother is killed.

• work by Montana biologists toward connecting NCDE grizzlies with populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, as well as recovery areas in the Cabinet-Yaak region of northwest Montana and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness on the Montana-Idaho border.

“So far, we have not captured a bear that was from another population — either NCDE or GYE,” said FWP biologist Cicely Costello, who did much of the science in Chapter 2. The linkage matters because interbreeding between regions maintains genetic diversity, which keeps populations healthy.

All three objectives drew criticism from commenters at Thursday’s commission meeting. Glen Hockett of Gallatin Wildlife Association said the 800 minimum population was mathematically barely enough to ensure 10 years’ survival for the NCDE grizzlies.

“We’re managing right on the edge of an extinction vortex,” Hockett said. “If you manage for more than a thousand, you’ll have higher probability that these animals will persist for more than 100 years.”

Marias River Livestock Association leader Butch Gillespie questioned where the bears could be tolerated, especially if they eat cattle or crops. As the NCDE grizzly population has grown, bears have traveled far beyond the remote mountains of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex into more farms, ranches and towns.

“We’re seeing many bears east of the surveillance area,” Gillespie said. “Do we have to get the whole state of Montana covered before we say, ‘Hey, we have enough?'”

And Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan noted that the first seven months of 2018 have recorded more grizzly deaths — 27 — than the conservation strategy suggests for a whole year. She said the conservation strategy doesn’t do enough to protect bears from changes to their food sources, habitat degradation, road expansions and other conflicts.

FWP Commission Chairman Dan Vermillion noted that this debate wouldn’t be happening if the Endangered Species Act hadn’t successfully brought the grizzly back to recovery. And while the grizzly enjoys widespread public support throughout the nation, he added the opinions of those living closest to bear country need respect.

“There are still tough conversations to occur,” Vermillion said. “We have to create both the natural habitat and the social environment that bears need to survive.”

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