Unlike Wyoming, which is moving ahead with plans for hunting grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem this fall, Montana's wildlife management agency announced Thursday it would like to hold off.
“Our focus, now (that) they are delisted, is managing these iconic species for long-term recovery and at the same time having the ability to respond to conflicts in the Yellowstone ecosystem,” said Martha Williams, director of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, in a press release.
The proposal is on the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission's Feb. 15 meeting agenda.
"This is exactly how FWP should be moving forward with grizzly bear management — slowly and carefully," said Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. "Not hunting these bears in the first few years after delisting will help FWP gain trust with the public, learn more about managing this valued native wildlife species, and ultimately build support for that day down the road when we do hunt grizzlies."
Grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Area were removed from the Endangered Species List last year following a 40-year recovery effort. The most recent count put their population at about 700 animals.
An agreement between Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — the three states surrounding the GYE — outlines how grizzly hunting would be split based on how much land the states have in the designated grizzly bear management area. The agreement also notes when hunting wouldn't be allowed, based on the total bear population and any grizzlies that were killed by wildlife managers, in collisions with cars or that die naturally.
The idea is to keep the total GYE grizzly population above a minimum of 500 animals and to spread out females across the landscape.
Last month, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission directed its state wildlife managers to begin drafting regulations for a fall hunt. The board's move came despite a lawsuit by environmental groups looking to overturn the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to lift protections for the animals.
Part of the delisting process was an agreement between Montana, Wyoming and Idaho on managing the bears that live or wander outside of Yellowstone National Park. No hunting is allowed inside Yellowstone. The process included a requirement that the states draft a framework for grizzly bear hunting seasons.
“Holding off on hunting for now, I believe, will help demonstrate our commitment to long-term recovery and at the same time allow us the science-based management flexibility we need,” Williams said. “We also are continuing to work hard at responding proactively to bear conflicts and educating people and communities in grizzly country how to be bear aware.”
Additionally, with challenges to the grizzly bear delisting rule already working their way through the courts, a hunting season seems likely to complicate those proceedings, FWP said in its statement.
Wyoming wildlife managers see the issue differently.
“While harvest will be extremely conservative, we are going to make that a goal to try and reduce the number of bears the agency has to remove that are in conflict,” Brian Nesvik, WGFD's chief game warden, told the Casper Star-Tribune in January. “For us, who have a charge from the public of managing for biological sustainability and opportunity, it’s better for a hunter to take a bear than a guy in a red shirt.”
Any of the three states' grizzly bear harvest is based on how many GYE bears have died over the course of the previous year. If too many bears die from other causes, there would be no hunts. The agencies refer to hunting as "discretionary mortality." If a huntable population does exist, each state is allotted a percentage of the discretionary mortality.
This year, if Montana were to hold a hunt it would be allowed a discretionary mortality of .9 females and 5.8 male grizzly bears.
FWP is bringing the issue before the commission now to clarify the process. However, the question may not come before the commission again unless the department decides to recommend a grizzly bear hunting season, the agency said.
The commission meeting will be at Montana WILD in Helena starting at 8:30 a.m. It will also be streamed live online and by video conferencing to FWP regional offices around the state. For more information, go online to fwp.mt.gov and click on Commission.