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A grizzly bear at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone tries to figure a way into a trash receptacle during a test in 2011. 

Plans to manage Yellowstone-area grizzly bears when they lose federal Endangered Species Act protection got approved on Wednesday, but removing the bears from the list remains months away.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee unanimously passed its Yellowstone Ecosystem conservation strategy at the end of its two-day meeting in Missoula. The strategy commits state and federal land managers to keeping a stable population of the keystone predators, sets rules for possible hunting seasons, and establishes standards for protecting key bear habitat.

But the conservation strategy stands separate from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s process for delisting the bears, according to FWS office supervisor Jodi Bush. That agency has the sole responsibility of analyzing about 650,000 public comments on its draft final rule. That rule would explain how the Yellowstone grizzlies have reached recovery status and why they no longer need federal protection. It’s also the part of the process most likely to be challenged in court.

Grizzly bears have been under Endangered Species Act protection in the continental United States since 1975. The conservation strategy explains how future grizzlies would be managed, assuming the delisting takes place.

In the Greater Yellowstone area, it commits 12 land managers to bear protection. That includes the National Park Service, three Forest Service regional foresters, three Bureau of Land Management state directors, two regional FWS directors and three state fish-and-wildlife departments.

It was the National Park Service, through Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk, that cast the lone “No” vote on the subcommittee’s strategy in November. Representatives of the Shoshone-Bannock tribal government abstained from the vote, and a representative from the Northern Arapaho-Eastern Arapaho tribal government were absent. Subcommittee Chairwoman and Custer-Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson said she’d received a letter from that tribal group saying it would have voted no if present.

NPS Associate Regional Director Patrick Walsh said the Park Service wasn’t comfortable with the draft strategy’s proposed method of estimating grizzly populations. The current statistical method, known as Chao 2, tends to underestimate as the population numbers get bigger. The new method, known as “mark-recapture” tends to increase the estimate by as much as 40 percent.

“We’d prefer to use the more conservative Chao 2 for long-term averages,” Walsh said on Wednesday. “We don’t want to create ‘paper bears.’”

Last-minute cellphone consultations in the atrium outside the Holiday Inn Parkside conference room on Wednesday morning finally allowed Walsh to join the unanimous vote in favor of the conservation strategy. He said the Chao 2 method remained the strategy’s preferred system for counting Yellowstone bears.

Sierra Club senior representative Bonnie Rice said her organization believed the delisting rule needed further analysis.

“We’re deeply concerned with today’s developments,” Rice said in an email. “This conservation strategy jeopardizes the future for bears in our region. It has no commitments to a long-term management plan, no measures to help Yellowstone’s bears connect to other populations, and mortality limits that will accelerate the population decline we’ve already seen over the past three years. Overall, it will result in fewer grizzly bears limited to an even smaller portion of the Yellowstone region.”

IGBC members also voted unanimously to ask FWS to accelerate work on delisting grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

“Nothing’s happened up here in the last couple years,” Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Manager Ken McDonald said. “We’ve got them recovered. Let’s take the next step and delist.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.