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Grizzly bear near Canyon

The state Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously approved a regulation Monday letting at least 800 grizzlies live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem if the animals lose their threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.

If or when grizzly bears come off the Endangered Species List, Montana will be ready to manage them.

Whether that means it’s ready to hunt them, tolerate them or see them expand beyond their stronghold in the northern Rocky Mountains are questions for another day. But on Monday, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously approved a regulation letting at least 800 grizzlies live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

FWP Wildlife Bureau Chief Ken McDonald told the commissioners that commits the state to keeping the population strong enough to avoid going back under federal protection.

The proposal drew more than 5,200 written comments during a 60-day public review, as well as drawing nearly 200 people to four regional meetings. 

“The overwhelming majority of the comments didn’t really address the rule,” McDonald said. “There was a lot of ‘don’t hunt, don’t delist, too many bears,’ but we didn’t feel there were any substantial comments that necessitated changes to the proposed rule.”

However, it has no effect until the federal government removes the grizzlies' threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.

An attempt last year to delist grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho failed in September when U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen ruled it had numerous errors. In particular, Christensen said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t show how handing the estimated 750 Yellowstone grizzlies to state management and hunting might affect separate populations in Montana and Idaho.

Many of those questions will be on the table Tuesday and Wednesday when the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meets in Missoula. Its members will discuss how to handle the court remand on Yellowstone bears as well as whether work on the NCDE delisting can go forward.

Montana officials believe about 1,000 grizzlies inhabit the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem between Glacier National Park and Missoula. That works out to almost 24 grizzlies per 1,000 kilometers. That compares to Alberta, which FWP reported had 18 bears per 1,000 square kilometers;  Alaska with 4 to 2 per 1,000 square kilometers, and northern British Columbia with 23 to 33 per 1,000 square kilometers.

However, those numbers came from studies that are 13 to 24 years old. Alberta wildlife authorities reported having fewer than 900 grizzlies in the entire province in 2017, and a study released in 2018 found the province’s best grizzly habitat had less than 4.3 bears per 1,000 square kilometers.

“That great white source of bears to the north isn’t there,” Missoula delisting critic Mike Bader said after Monday’s hearing. He argued that the NCDE needed several thousand grizzlies to be considered a recovered, genetically viable population that could withstand increased human conflict. It also needs to be connected to recovery areas in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk mountains that have about 100 grizzlies apiece, and the Selway-Bitterroot mountains that now have no resident bears.

Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock was the only participant on Monday to support the rule.

“It’s scientifically sound and has plenty of safeguards,” Gevock told the commissioners. “It’s a good rule and we strongly support it.”

The rule doesn’t set an upper limit for the grizzly population in the NCDE. That’s in part because the bears themselves may find a carrying capacity. It may also depend on how people around the core habitat grow to tolerate or dislike the bears.

McDonald said in order to stay above the 800-bear threshold, the agency essentially would manage to keep around 1,000 grizzlies in the NCDE. Should the number fall below 800, FWP would stop all discretionary bear killing until it completes a study finding out why. The study should illuminate reasons why the numbers went down, whether that shows a serious threat to grizzly persistence and what can be done to change the trend.

The rule does not bind FWP’s methods or policies for dealing with problem bears. Although grizzlies remain on the federal threatened species list, they still can’t be hunted and can only be killed in self-defense situations, for protection of livestock or property or through official control actions that have been reviewed by federal bear managers.

While it doesn’t specifically deal with hunting, the proposed Montana management rule does mention that an existing state rule declares hunting as the preferred method for managing grizzly numbers.

Some commenters thought the 800 minimum figure was too high. FWP biologists noted that a previous review, when the area had about 500 grizzlies in the 1980s and 1990s, determined that was too small to have enough breeding females to keep the population healthy.

The rules also don’t tell FWP how to count or manage grizzlies that move outside the core habitat. That gives the agency discretion about how to handle bear conflicts in more people-populated areas.

“The biggest impediment to grizzly bear populations in Montana is not whether the species is on or off the list,” Commission Chairman Dan Vermillion said. “It’s whether we can create an adequate degree of tolerance for grizzly bears on the landscape. In places like the Marias River or out by Fort Benton, when they show up they don’t last very long. That’s because they’re getting ahead of their social tolerance.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.