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National Elk Refuge grizzly bears

A grizzly bear sow and cubs roam the National Elk Refuge south of Grand Teton National Park. Grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have been removed from federal Endangered Species Act protection and handed over to state wildlife agency management in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. 

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meets in Polson this week to consider last steps toward removing Montana's largest population of grizzly bears from the Endangered Species List.

IGBC members meet on Tuesday and Wednesday to possibly adopt the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem conservation strategy, the blueprint directing how state wildlife agencies would manage grizzlies if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delists them. 

FWS has already removed about 700 grizzly bears in the three-state area known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from the endangered list. Wyoming Game and Fish Department has proposed selling hunting licenses for at least 22 grizzlies this fall. Idaho has a quota of one male grizzly for hunting. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commissioners opted to skip a grizzly hunt in 2018 over concerns that pending lawsuits against the delisting might block a fall hunt.

On Friday, the Idaho Fish and Game Dept. announced its system for a grizzly hunting lottery, with applications accepted between June 15 and July 15. The drawing is limited to Idaho residents with a valid state hunting license who must pay a nonrefundable $16.75 application fee and prepay the tag fee of at least $166.75. Unsuccessful applicants will get their tag fees refunded.

About 1,000 grizzlies live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which spreads along the Rocky Mountains from the Canadian border with Glacier National Park south almost to Missoula. They are considered geographically and genetically distinct from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bears.

If the IGBC members approve the conservation strategy on this week, it may form the basis of the federal delisting rule set to be published later in 2018.

“It essentially commits the agencies to follow the spirit of the conservation strategy,” said IGBC spokesman Dillon Tabish. “This isn’t the end of the public opportunity to comment. Any actions they (the participating agencies) would have to take must follow public process.”

FWS Grizzly Recovery Coordinator Hillary Cooley said the final delisting rule remained a ways off.

“We’ve got an initial draft, but it has a lot of review to go through,” Cooley said on Friday. “We don’t have a specific date right now, other than by the end of 2018.”

Cooley explained that while the IGBC executive committee’s endorsement is important to the federal rule-making process, the individual agencies, such as the National Park Service, state wildlife managers and Blackfeet and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal governments, sign separately.

The federal delisting rule sets mortality limits for how many bears may die before Endangered Species Act protections might be re-imposed. The conservation strategy guides local wildlife managers in how to avoid that situation.

“If a state or tribe decides to hunt at some time, that’s their business,” Cooley said. “What matters to us is they stay within the mortality limits, no matter what the cause.”

The strategy has received extensive criticism of its methods for measuring bear population trends, habitat quality and allowance of hunting opportunities. Mike Bader, an advocate for keeping grizzlies under ESA protection, said the new strategy appeared legally vulnerable.

“They’re just rushing this through as fast as they can,” Bader said on Friday. “I don’t think they’ve dotted the i’s or crossed the t’s on what the grizzly bear needs.”

Bader noted that seven NCDE grizzlies have died in the past few weeks, including four that were hit by vehicles on roadways. He said the strategy made overly optimistic assumptions about how fast grizzly numbers are growing, which could prove disastrous if conditions change unexpectedly.

A federal judge in Missoula has scheduled an August 31 hearing on challenges to the Greater Yellowstone grizzly delisting. Wyoming’s proposed grizzly hunting season starts right after that, and could be derailed if the judge rules to keep the bear federally protected or requires more time for review.

One issue the lawsuit raises is whether FWS can remove protection from some distinct population segments of bears (such as the Greater Yellowstone) without dooming recovery in smaller areas such as the Cabinet-Yaak or North Cascades ecosystems. A similar lawsuit involving delisting gray wolves around the Western Great Lakes ordered FWS to take a much harder look at how removing protections from one population segment might affect the others.

Tabish said the final 144-page strategy has an appendix with about 60 pages of responses to past public comments. Tuesday’s meeting will further discuss how the NCDE and Yellowstone ecosystem bear populations might link in the future.

The executive committee plans to tour the National Bison Range and some other parts of the Mission Valley affected by grizzly activity on Wednesday. A complete agenda for the meeting can be found here.

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