On Feb. 3, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said it would consider removing federal protections for two distinct populations of grizzly bears.
The plan would evaluate whether to remove the grizzly bears from the “threatened species” list, a protection category defined by the Endangered Species Act.
Grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems have attracted special attention from Wyoming and Montana state lawmakers for years — including Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte’s 2021 petition to delist the bears, and manage them under state control.
The move helped spur the USFWS review earlier this month. Now, Gianforte’s state government has filed legislation that proposes how it would manage the bears without federal oversight.
“After decades of work, the grizzly bear has more than recovered in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), which represents a conservation success,” Gianforte said in a press release. “As part of that conservation success, the federal government has accepted our petition to delist the grizzly in the NCDE, opening the door to state management of this iconic American species.”
Montana Senate Bill No. 295
Sponsored by state Sen. Bruce Gillespie (R-Etheridge) Montana Senate Bill No. 295 is “an act revising laws related to the regulation of grizzly bears on delisting.” Its provisions include allowing the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks department (FWP) to construct rules prior to a potential delisting, such as structuring how livestock owners can handle grizzlies attacking their animals, as well as establishing quotas.
“Grizzly bears are a recovered population and thrive under responsive cooperative management,” the bill states. “[G]rizzly bear conservation is best served under state management and the local, state, tribal, and federal partnerships that fostered recovery; and successful conflict management is key to maintaining public support for conservation of the grizzly bear.”
Under the proposed law, anyone who finds a grizzly “threatening” livestock — including animals such as cattle, swine, and sheep, along with guard dogs — can issue a complaint to the FWP. After evaluation, the department can elect to either remove the bear non-lethally or issue a permit to the livestock owner or “other authorized person” to kill it.
But in the stages before the bill became law, the bears would face less-regulated culling. The document also provides that prior to delisting, the FWP will set up rules to allow removing or killing grizzlies “at any time without a permit or license” in cases of livestock depredation.
FWP Management Proposal and Outlook
Drafted in December 2022, FWP’s 202-page grizzly bear management plan underwent a public comment period that ended on Feb. 4. The document’s executive summary, which emphasizes the “overwhelming success” of the species’ half-century protection under the Endangered Species Act, sketches the proposed plan as a balancing act.
“FWP would continue to ensure their long-term presence in Montana, recognizing that they are among the most difficult species to have in our midst. FWP views grizzly bears as both ‘conservation-reliant’ (meaning it will always require intensive management) and ‘conflict-prone,'” it says.
That conflict can arise within both the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide grizzly populations. While relatively infrequent, conflicts occur in each area on a recurring basis.
Critics Deride Plan’s ‘Piecemeal Approach’
It’s hard to tell a grizzly what to eat, and even harder to control the boundaries of its hunting grounds. Critics of the USFWS’s policy review argue that managing the state’s two populations as geographically isolated is a mistake.
It contradicts the recovery the bears have seen under the Endangered Species Act, Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, told Explore Big Sky.
“This piecemeal approach really struggles against the systemic approach to recovery envisioned by the Endangered Species Act,” Phillips said. “You can’t list something [as a distinct population segment] just to turn around and delist it. That sort of administrative Jiu-jitsu isn’t what the act intended.”
Trina Jo Bradley, executive director for the Rocky Mountain Front Rangelands Group, made a counterpoint: culling bears responsible for conflicts (also called depredations) could help the species at large.
“If we can be 100% certain we are eliminating the grizzly bears responsible for depredations, fewer bears will be removed from the population incidentally, which only makes grizzly bear conservation more successful,” Bradley told GOHUNT. “It would also eliminate the issue of generations of problem bears that have been bred on the Rocky Mountain Front.”
According to the USFWS’s latest 5-year review, which concluded in early 2021, about 1,100 grizzlies lived in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and about 740 lived in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
Before the species’ near-extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, an estimated 50,000 grizzlies roamed the American West.