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Grizzly bear family

Grizzly bears have boundary issues.

In northwest Montana, about a thousand of them wander the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

That 8 million-acre expanse includes Glacier National Park, at least six counties, two Indian reservations and five national forests. And the bears are ready for more.

To deal with that growing population and territory, as well as the potential that grizzlies could soon be removed from the federal endangered species list, those five national forests are considering a single habitat management plan that would keep all the U.S. Forest Service folks on the same page, bear-wise.

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg challenge here.

Grizzly bears were listed as a federally protected, threatened species in 1975 and placed under the care of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

That agency is working on a formal plan to remove Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzlies from federal protection, as the bear population there has been growing about 3 percent a year since 2004.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and an alphabet soup of other state, tribal and federal agencies have been working toward that since 1983 via the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.

But before the Fish and Wildlife Service can delist the grizzly, it must show that all those other agencies are ready to manage and protect the bear.

If the grizzly is delisted, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks would have responsibility for the bears themselves, and any potential hunting season. But the Forest Service owns most of the land the bears use.

On Friday, officials from the Flathead, Lolo, Bitterroot, Lewis and Clark and Helena national forests released a draft forest plan amendment that would guide all their staffs on grizzly bear habitat issues.

In the Flathead Forest’s case, the habitat management would become part of its under-construction forest plan. The other four forests would lay in the grizzly bear rules as an amendment to their existing plans.

“That keeps the standards consistent between forests,” said Lolo National Forest environmental coordinator Chris Partyka. “When you have a recovering species that moves over vast territories, this provides consistency for the bear.”

The plan amendment details how bear needs are handled in several different kinds of territory.

In core areas like the Bob Marshall Wilderness and its surrounding national forests, any logging, mining, recreation, road-building or related activity would have to avoid hurting grizzly bears or the places they den, hunt or travel.

Bears would carry less weight in a zone bordering that central core.

But places around Kalispell, Seeley Lake and Lincoln would need to follow rules on backcountry food storage to keep bear conflicts to a minimum.

Some sensitive places in the Ninemile Ranger District or near Rock Creek would get attention because grizzlies may use those corridors to reach the Bitterroot National Forest or farther south to Yellowstone National Park.

A third zone would have even lighter bear restrictions, focused mainly on preventing human-bear conflicts.

“We need to have these completed before we can finalize anything,” FWS grizzly bear program coordinator Chris Servheen said. “We’re working closely with the Forest Service, and we really appreciate all the effort they’ve put in.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service probably won’t have a delisting proposal ready for at least a year. A similar effort to delist grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has been held up by years of court challenges.

But Flathead National Forest wildlife biologist Reed Kuennen said the proposed bear rules are necessary under any circumstances. 

“We manage the bear’s habitat whether it’s listed or not listed (under the Endangered Species Act),” Kuennen said. “I feel really encouraged as a wildlife biologist on this emphasis to look at the whole ecosystem and how it fits into a bigger landscape.”

The 60-day written comment period ends May 5.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.