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A crucial piece of the plan to hand the biggest population of grizzly bears in Montana over to state management was released on Thursday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Habitat-Based Recovery Criteria for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem describes what grizzlies there need to remain off Endangered Species Act protection if the federal government decides to delist them. A full delisting plan for the grizzlies should come up for public review in June.

The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) stretches from the southern tip of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex north to the Canadian border. It includes Glacier National Park, but does not connect to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem around Yellowstone National Park. An estimated 1,000 grizzly bears inhabit the NCDE.

Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states were listed as a threatened species in 1975. Last year, the approximately 700 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem were deemed recovered and turned over to state wildlife agencies. Montana wildlife officials consider the NCDE grizzlies also recovered, and have asked the federal government to delist them as well.  

The recovery criteria list the methods of calculating grizzly population growth, how many bears can die before that population drops to unhealthy levels, and the kinds of activity that can go on in grizzly country. That includes motorized travel, camping and picnicking, logging and similar development in the roughly 9,000 square miles of the NCDE. About three-quarters of that land belongs to the federal government.

“The draft went out in December and was open to public comment and peer review,” FWS spokeswoman Jennifer Strickland said on Thursday. “We incorporated the feedback and this is the final draft. We are planning to make a decision (on NCDE grizzly delisting) by the end of the fiscal year. That’s the end of September.”

Critics of the criteria said they appear to be rushed and incomplete. Grizzly protection advocate Mike Bader of Missoula said the formulas for population trends make some choices that show unrealistic growth.

“Their estimates have a high end and a low end,” Bader said. “If you take the low end, the population doesn’t grow according to their model. If you take the high end, you get 1,100 bears and lots of management space above their floor of 800 bears. If you think you’ve got 200 more bears than you really have, and then impose an unsustainable hunting season, you might turn this whole progress on its head.”

Swan View Coalition Director Keith Hammer, another FWS critic, said the criteria have watered down important terms so they have less legal force. Instead of previous plans’ “standards and guidelines,” the new document refers to “goals and objectives.”

“In their last recovery plan, the major criticism from the court was that ‘goals and objectives’ are not adequate regulatory mechanisms,” Hammer said. “Standards are supposedly legally enforceable.”

In more concrete terms, Hammer said the new criteria drop previous guidelines requiring complete obliteration of old roads deemed no longer useful or desired. Instead, placing a gate or some obstacles at the start of a forest road can justify erasing it from the map, and from calculations of road density that degrade grizzly habitat.

“The research shows that even closed roads harm grizzly bears,” Hammer said. “They’re doing so many things contrary to legal and public opinion, it makes me wonder if these agencies are trying to intentionally lose this in court of law in hopes Congress will bail them out.”

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly delisting already faces a major lawsuit questioning whether the federal government followed its own rules in determining bears there were recovered. Nevertheless, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission on Wednesday approved a grizzly hunting season for up to 23 bears.

Idaho Fish and Game officials have approved a season for a single grizzly in 2018, while Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commissioners opted to hold off this year until they see how the lawsuit gets decided.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.