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Biologists: Grizzly bears need more habitat to thrive in northern Continental Divide

Biologists: Grizzly bears need more habitat to thrive in northern Continental Divide

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Grizzly Bears

In this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, a grizzly bear rubs on a tree in Glacier National Park in Montana.

HELENA — Government biologists say current habitat won't be enough for grizzly bears to thrive along Montana's Northern Continental Divide after the animals are eventually delisted from federal protections.

People are going to have to accept the big predators as a cohabitant on a limited landscape, the biologists said in a draft conservation plan released this week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The plan has been hailed as a major step toward ensuring that the iconic species thrives in a roughly 110,000-square-mile area that includes Glacier National Park.

Fish and Wildlife is taking comment now on the plan now at .

"We developed this strategy because maintenance of a healthy, recovered grizzly population depends on the effective continuation of many partnerships to manage and conserve the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly bear population and its habitat," said Noreen Walsh, Fish and Wildlife's Mountain-Prairie regional director.

It's expected to be 2014 before about 600 bears around Yellowstone National Park, to the south of the bears targeted by this plan, lose their federal protections.

However, it could take longer for about 1,000 grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem covered by this conservation plan, a sprawling area north and east of Missoula and Bozeman that spans the northern border with Canada, have been listed as a threatened species since 1975.

Since then, they've bounced back significantly — thanks to efforts by the state and federal governments as well as Montana Indian tribes that together have helped spearhead recovery, coordinate research efforts, and improve habitat management.

This draft plan — once it's adopted following public scrutiny and possibly changes — wouldn't lift Endangered Species Act protections, but rather provide a framework for managing bears, once protections have been relaxed.

In addition to outlining strategies for coexistence between bears and people including residents of ranching communities whose livelihoods sometimes conflict with predators, the plan's other elements include making sure that, in particular, male grizzlies can move between the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and adjacent ecosystems.

The key to public support and successful management of grizzly bears is to balance multiple land uses, public safety, and careful consideration of grizzly bear needs," according to the draft plan. "Human-caused mortality is the limiting factor for nearly all grizzly bear populations in the world and this Conservation Strategy aims to manage mortality at sustainable levels."

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