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Grizzly bear walking north of the road near Sedge Bay

A grizzly bear walks north of the road near Sedge Bay in Yellowstone in this file photo.

Montana’s wildlife officials may keep planning to manage grizzly bears even though federal efforts to take them off the Endangered Species List appear stalled.

The state Fish and Wildlife Commission plans on Monday in Helena to vote on a formal rule governing how it will regulate grizzly populations in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). But the failure of a federal delisting plan for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in September has put additional delistings in doubt.

“We were on track to have a [NCDE delisting] proposal by the end of this calendar year,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly recovery coordinator Hillary Cooley told the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s November meeting in Missoula. “That’s not on track anymore.”

The service has until Dec. 24 to decide to appeal the U.S. District Court’s Yellowstone ruling to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Cooley said the delisting problems raised by the judge made it hard to choose between a legal appeal or an administrative reconsideration of a stronger rule. In a presentation to a Wyoming Legislative committee on Nov. 29, Cooley said an appeal could take two years. Redoing the rule would take at least a year, followed by a year of public review.

Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks would have prime jurisdiction over the estimated 1,000 grizzlies in the 16,000-square-mile Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem that extends from Glacier National Park to the southern tip of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) developed a conservation strategy for how to manage grizzly populations, handle conflicts and prevent the bears from returning to threatened or endangered federal status. Montana FWP Director Martha Williams asked the commission to consider adopting those rules as part of state regulations.

“With the bears still being listed, what we say as a state really doesn’t matter,” FWP Wildlife Program Director Ken McDonald said at the Missoula IGBC meeting. “But upon delisting, people can understand where the department is coming from as far as population management goes.”

The agency received about 5,200 public comments during its 60-day review period. FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said given the amount of work already put into the regulations, it was best for the commission to finish the job and hold them in reserve if and when grizzlies get turned over to state management.

Meanwhile, FWP has sent a request for nearly $900,000 over two years for grizzly conflict management to the governor’s budget planning process. While the money would come from state license revenue and federal wildlife programs and not the general fund, the agency still needs legislative permission for the spending.

The grizzly program seeks $424,174 in 2020 to add bear management specialists in Red Lodge and Conrad as well as continue bear conflict positions in Missoula, Bozeman and Libby. A similar amount would be spent in 2021. The request notes the positions help “support delisting of these populations.”

A separate request for about $130,000 would pay for a wildlife planner position that would direct management actions for mountain goat, antelope, moose, fisher, Canada lynx and wolverine populations as well as build a statewide plan for grizzly bears inside and outside their recovery areas. The request covers one position with a similar amount asked in 2021.

“Delisting is a big process,” FWP Wildlife Bureau Coordinator Quentin Kujala said. “It will take its time. It’s not going to be tomorrow. So we have to manage the bear proactively where we can and reactively where we have to. When we talk about delisting, that’s an end objective. It represents a conservation success story when the species doesn’t need that federal protection."

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.