Similar to the heated debate surrounding wolves five years ago, the fate of grizzly bears is a polarizing issue in the Rocky Mountains, where opposing sides are forming over the future status of the iconic species in its last remaining stronghold in the lower 48 states.
The Obama administration is seeking to lift protections under the Endangered Species Act for more than 700 grizzlies around Yellowstone National Park, saying that specific population has sufficiently recovered in a 19,279-square-mile area spanning southwestern Montana and parts of Wyoming and Idaho. On the heels of the proposal, Montana has prepared for state management of the species by crafting guidelines and details of a possible limited hunting season, similar to how wolves are now managed. The state began accepting public comment on the proposed biannual season last week.
Citing cultural objections to the proposed hunting season, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are opposing the removal of federal protections for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region.
Dale Becker, the wildlife program manager for the CSKT, said the tribes submitted a formal letter last week to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explaining their opposition, which aligns with other tribal governments in the region that have come out against the proposal.
Becker said the tribes commended the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its efforts to recover the population of grizzlies across the entire state, but “the real sticking point is the plan to including hunting by the three states.”
“That’s the sticking point for a whole group of tribes,” Becker said.
“We had discussions with representatives from both our culture committees, the Kootenai and the Salish, and the thing that came out was members of this tribe traditionally didn’t hunt grizzly bears and the species was held in pretty high reverence from a cultural and spiritual standpoint.”
Becker said the potential hunting season presented a big concern to the CSKT. Historically, the Flathead Reservation banned hunting of grizzlies early on after the species was listed as threatened under the ESA in 1975. Hunting was allowed in much of Northwest Montana until 1991, when a federal judge when a federal district judge issued an injunction halting the season and the USFWS revoked the special rule.
The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in Idaho have also come out against the Yellowstone delisting.
“No grizzly bears will be hunted on Shoshone-Bannock lands, and the Shoshone-Bannock will oppose any attempts to hunt grizzlies in their recognized ancestral homelands,” the tribes stated in March.
The Blackfeet Tribe has not taken an official stance on the delisting proposal, according to Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes.
Barnes said there are a mixture of competing opinions about the proposal within the tribe, while his concerns are centered on habitat impacts if the bears were delisted.
“We’re not in favor of more degradation of the habitat and ecosystem,” he said.
The CSKT formalized their stance in a letter sent to the federal government during its comment period on the proposed delisting, which ended May 10. Over 5,000 comments were submitted online and an untold amount more were sent through the mail.
While many critics have expressed opposition to the Yellowstone proposal, it has garnered full support from Montana’s governor and its congressional delegation.
“Animals are put on the endangered list because they are facing extinction and I think this is a success story,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, said last week while visiting Kalispell. “Quite frankly if they’re recovered, we can rejoice, and I think we need to manage them. I think this could be a real success story much like wolves if in fact the science bears it out and then we should move forward and mange them appropriately and continue to monitor them.”
Tester said he supports hunting grizzlies as a form of management.
The proposed delisting of the Yellowstone grizzlies could set the stage for other populations to transition to delisted status and state management, including the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in Northwest Montana.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, said in March he hopes the delisting would help “clear the way for responsible management of the species and more responsible management of our natural resources, including our National Forests.” He also said he would encourage the USFWS to delist other grizzly populations in the state in the coming years.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, said he welcomed the opportunity for the state to manage the species.
“Montanans should be in charge of managing our wildlife for the betterment of the state,” Bullock stated. “I am excited that we can again have that opportunity and we will do so in a responsible way that is reflective of our values, and the value of this iconic species.”
Similarly, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke said it would be best for Montana to manage the species over the federal government.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision on the delisting proposal by March 2017.