Gov. Steve Bullock wants a citizen advisory committee to provide ideas for managing grizzly bears, assuming the federal government turns them over to state management soon.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared its intention to remove Endangered Species Act protection from grizzlies in the two biggest recovery areas of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, where they’ve been a threatened species since 1975.
But federal courts have found the service’s delisting rules inadequate twice for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, most recently last September. That put plans to delist the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzlies on hold as well. Nearly 2,000 grizzlies inhabit those two areas, which extend from south of Yellowstone National Park to the Canadian border.
“With this conservation success has come some challenges,” Bullock wrote on Tuesday. “Grizzly bears, Montana’s state animal, are valued by people and cultures across Montana. They are also feared, and their presence can affect people’s livelihoods and safety.”
Bullock’s memo notes that while the two largest recovery areas in the northern Rockies have reached the threshold of delisting, two other areas in Montana remain far from restoration. They are the Cabinet-Yaak Recovery Area in northwest Montana where about 50 grizzlies live, and the Bitterroot Recovery Area with no known resident grizzlies but lots of potential to support a population or link other recovery zones.
“I believe it is our responsibility to demonstrate a path forward on bear management and recovery by looking at the issue comprehensively statewide, rather than just focusing on the needs and challenges based on the current recovery areas,” Bullock wrote. “We now look to a new chapter of grizzly bear management and recognize that while recovery efforts must continue in some areas, the long-term coexistence of people and grizzly bears in Montana remains a challenge in need of our attention.”
The governor called for “livestock producers, wildlife enthusiasts, conservation groups, hunters, natural resource and outdoor industry professionals, tribal representatives, community leaders and others” to apply for seats on the council. Its job will be to issue recommendations that the governor’s office, FWP and the Fish and Wildlife Commission can act upon.
FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said the size and specific membership criteria for the committee was still under discussion. Interested applicants should pitch their qualifications directly to the governor’s attention, although FWP leadership will probably have the task of sorting through the initial suggestions. Participants should be prepared to meet eight times in the next year. Lemon said Bullock wants to have the suggestions ready for review by April 12, 2020.
Council topics include human safety; maintaining grizzly population health; dealing with human/bear conflict; and better working relationships with state, tribal and agency stakeholders.
It will also look at where grizzlies are dispersing beyond their recovery zones, how well they connect ecosystems, improved conflict prevention and response, where to transplant captured grizzlies, the resources for managing delisted bear populations and the role of hunting grizzly bears.
Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, praised Bullock's decision, calling the committee "an excellent idea.''
"As grizzly bears continue to expand in number and in range, the main challenges for the next decade are going to be very different than the past three decades,'' he said. "This is an example of how we do things right in Montana.''
Hunting has been the most controversial part of the grizzly delisting process. Wyoming and Idaho each scheduled trophy grizzly hunts last year after the federal government delisted the bears in 2017, but the federal court ruling suspended those hunts the day before they were supposed to start on Sept. 1 2018. Montana wildlife officials opted not to set a 2018 hunt, correctly predicting the court delay.
All three states and several intervening hunting organizations have appealed the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But the federal government has postponed its filing until May 24, and has the option of skipping the appeal and redrafting the delisting rules.
That was the suggestion of grizzly protection advocate Mike Bader in Missoula, who was critical of Bullock’s committee plan.
“This is a call for delisting and hunting when the bears are not recovered by either legal or scientific standards,” Bader said on Tuesday. “There aren’t enough bears to have both a healthy meta-population and all the hunting and increased recreation we want.”
The council will use a state-hired facilitator and is expected to involve public engagement. Montana FWP will also assign a panel of scientific and technical advisors to help the committee.
“Although grizzly bears are found in two of our neighboring states, Montana is where the core population resides,” Bullock wrote. “As such, the lion’s share of recovery and conservation of these animals is in our hands. This is a tremendous responsibility and opportunity.”