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Hunting Grizzlies

A grizzly bear roams near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Getting grizzly bears delisted from the Endangered Species Act will be on the Legislature’s wish list for the second session in a row.

Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Libby, will send his joint resolution to a public hearing on Thursday. If passed, it asks the state’s congressional delegation to draft a bill giving Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department responsibility for grizzly management and blocking any court review of the move. A nearly identical 2017 version passed the House 63-37 and the Senate 31-18. Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, led that effort. However, no Montana congressional member introduced such a bill.

“The grizzly is not in danger of going extinct in Montana,” Cuffe said. “We have a substantial population and it’s time to delist statewide. It’s time to celebrate the success of grizzly recovery in Montana.”

Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states have been a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1975. As part of their recovery strategy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created six recovery areas in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington.

The Bitterroot Ecosystem on the Montana-Idaho border has no known resident grizzlies, and the North Cascades Ecosystem in Washington may only have a few that cross south from Canada. The Selkirk Ecosystem in north Idaho and the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem in northwest Montana each have an estimated 50 or 60 grizzlies that also move across the Canadian border.

The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem has the largest distinct population segment of grizzlies, with an estimated 1,000 bears in the mountains between Glacier National Park and Interstate 90. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the tri-state area around Yellowstone National Park has an estimated 750 grizzlies.

FWS attempted to delist the Greater Yellowstone grizzlies in 2017, but a federal court ruling last September vacated that decision. That forced FWS to delay its plans to delist the Northern Continental Divide grizzlies, which it had planned to do by the end of 2018. While the service has filed a notice of appeal, it also has the option of drafting a new delisting rule for one or both ecosystems to answer the court failings.

“It’s time to get the courts out of the management of grizzlies,” Cuffe said. “The GYE (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) population has been through two delisting proposals at different times, and they got held up in the courts. The fear is if people keep manipulating and finding reasons to prevent delisting, especially in areas where they’ve had proposals to delist, what they wind up doing is taking away respect for the Endangered Species Act.

"It worked to the extent it recovered the population, but then (the species) won’t come off the list through that process so you have to do it politically. That’s what happened to the gray wolf, if you remember.”

Rocky Mountain gray wolves were experimentally reintroduced to the Yellowstone Park area in 1995. FWS moved to delist them in 2008, and the decision went through several court challenges. In 2011, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana attached a rider to a budget bill declaring the wolf recovered and exempt from further court review.

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Cuffe’s resolution proposes FWS create a statewide distinct population segment of grizzlies in Montana and combine the Northern Continental Divide, Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk areas as “one large interbreeding distinct population segment.” It does not address how the Selkirk’s Idaho territory would be included in Montana, or what the fate of the Montana portions of the Greater Yellowstone or Bitterroot recovery zones would be.

Both the 2019 and 2017 resolutions miss significant details about grizzly recovery, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials. The resolutions’ claim that grizzlies in three Montana recovery zones have successfully interbred is incorrect, according to FWS bear biologist Wayne Kasworm. What genetic interchange that has been recorded only came through transplanted bears trucked in from other areas, not natural animal behavior.

FWS grizzly recovery coordinator Hillary Cooley added the resolution’s proposed single-state distinct population segment would not survive a court challenge.

“You could combine recovery areas, but you just can’t use the state boundary,” Cooley said. “The boundary would have to be biologically relevant. We’ve treated them from the beginning as six separate recovery zones, and we want to recover grizzlies in each one of them.”

Wyoming’s state Legislature has introduced a similar measure this year, and in Congress, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. filed a bill last year to reissue the 2017 FWS delisting rule for Greater Yellowstone bears. That bill has not been re-filed in the 2019 congressional session.

Cuffe’s resolution goes before the Senate Fish and Game Committee on Thursday.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.