Grizzly bear

In this Sept. 25, 2013, file photo, a grizzly bear cub forages for food a few miles from the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont.

Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission decided Thursday to skip a 2018 grizzly bear hunting season, citing pending lawsuits and a wish to move cautiously as the species nears recovery.

“Montana has proven itself a leader in how it manages these species,” commission Chairman Dan Vermillion said on Thursday. “This is not a decision to not ever have a hunting season. There are a lot of issues that need to be resolved before our department spends a significant amount of resources setting up a season. This retains maximum flexibility moving forward into an increasingly difficult situation.”

Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 States have been under federal Endangered Species Act protection since 1975. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears recovered in 2017. That allowed wildlife managers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to consider those grizzlies as big-game animals in a demographic monitoring area outside Yellowstone National Park.

In January, representatives from the three states reviewed grizzly population estimates and the number of bears killed in 2017. They concluded that with a population of 718 bears, there was a possible quota of 17 male grizzlies and 2.5 females available for hunting.

The states have an agreement to divide that total by their percentage of the geographic area. Montana’s hunting share would have been one female grizzly and six males.

Montana wildlife managers had three options. One was to authorize a hunt for fall 2018 with that limit of one female and six males. The second was to skip a season, but allow Idaho and Wyoming hunters to kill Montana’s share of the population. Option 3 was to skip starting a season and also withhold its allocation of bears.

But the FWS delisting decision already faces six lawsuits claiming grizzlies remain threatened. And the states’ agreement says that when the female quota is reached, all grizzly hunting should end for the season.

The allowable annual mortality for sow grizzlies is 9 percent, compared to 20 percent for boars. Given the difficulty of telling a bear’s gender through a rifle scope, having a single female available for hunting was considered too slim of a potential season.

“Based on that low available mortality and the ongoing litigation, our recommendation would be to not proceed with a hunt this year,” Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Wildlife Division Administrator Ken McDonald told the commissioners. “We also recommend letting the other states know we maintain our allocation so they don’t get used elsewhere.”

Idaho and Wyoming officials are still considering whether to launch a grizzly 2018 hunting season.

Commissioner Shane Colton recalled how Montana set five wolf hunting seasons that got rescinded as gray wolf delisting worked its way through the federal court system. He said rushing into a grizzly hunting season risked wasting state resources.

“Let the other states go off and tilt at windmills,” Colton said. “We’ll hunker down and do good science and put together a hunt that won’t be subject to injunctions.”

The commissioners unanimously chose the third option.

The hunting season issue does not affect roughly 1,000 grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem stretching from Missoula to Glacier National Park. A federal proposal to delist those bears is under development and might be released this summer. But any hunting of those bears would go through a separate Montana review.

Nick Gevock of the Montana Wildlife Federation said his organization supported an eventual grizzly hunt in the Yellowstone area, but added the commission’s slow approach would build trust with the public. That also gives more time to prepare landowners for grizzly movement. Gevock cited an example of a carcass-collection program that has already paid for removal of 68 dead livestock in the Centennial Mountains to avoid attracting grizzlies.

“That’s a crucial corridor to get them from the Yellowstone to the Selway-Bitterroot (Wilderness),” Gevock said. “When we do have a grizzly hunt, we want the harvest to be fairly concentrated close to the park. We don’t want to kill the bears that are re-inhabiting historic habitat.”

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