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Camas grizzly

This undated photo shows a sow grizzly bear spotted near Camas in northwestern Montana.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ oversight of grizzly bear recovery in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem officially begins its public review on Friday, Aug. 24.

If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removes grizzly bears from Endangered Species Act protection, the state agency would have responsibility for ensuring that northwest Montana bear populations stay at healthy levels.

Federal officials intend to delist that recovery area by the end of this year. The FWP Commission decided to use its formal rule-making process to adopt a set of counting methods and requirements for measuring that population.

The review includes four public meetings in Missoula, Great Falls, Conrad and Kalispell in September. Commenters can also send written responses to the FWP headquarters by mail or email.

Grizzlies in the lower 48 states got Endangered Species Act protection in 1975, when fewer than 400 inhabited remote parts of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee established six recovery areas, including the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) around Yellowstone National Park and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) in northwest Montana. Last July, FWS delisted about 750 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem after determining that population was recovered and stable.

Although that GYE delisting has been challenged in federal court, federal officials have pressed to delist about 1,000 grizzlies in northwest Montana. The conservation strategy calls for keeping at least 800 bears in the core habitat of 8 million acres and some of the surrounding areas.

It also sets guidelines for the numbers of female bears with cubs distributed throughout the area, and commits the state to work on building linkage routes for those bears to breed with other populations. And it limits how many grizzlies may die or be removed from the wild before new restrictions may take effect. So far in 2018, 27 grizzlies have been lost to motor vehicle collisions, management actions or hunting incidents.

That could limit the number of grizzlies available in a Montana big game hunting season, if the state decides to hold one. Wyoming and Idaho wildlife agencies already have authorized grizzly hunting seasons this fall. Montana’s FWP Commission decided to postpone any hunting season decision until the federal court challenges are resolved, likely at the end of this month.

Critics of the monitoring plan have challenged the proposed counting techniques as scientifically inaccurate. They also charge the plan fails to keep other rules in place to protect grizzlies, such as limits on road, trail and backcountry activity in core habitat.

The public comment period extends through Oct. 26. FWP staff then will review the responses and propose any potential amendments to the plan to the FWP Commission. Adoption of the rule could come by the end of December.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.