The future management and conservation of Montana’s grizzly bear populations will be influenced to some degree by a citizen advisory council now preparing its final recommendations to Gov. Steve Bullock, with an emphasis on informing “those issues on which there is significant social disagreement.”
When it comes to the grizzly bear, those issues run the gamut — from hunting to habitat connectivity, highway mortalities to human-caused conflict, grizzlies are among the most controversial and charismatic critters on the western landscape.
In an effort to bridge some of those divides, Bullock established the 18-person Grizzly Bear Advisory Council last year to help initiate and steer a statewide discussion about the conservation, recovery and future management of the threatened species, which in the lower 48 remain federally protected even as their populations grow, in some segments more than others.
Their management would revert to state control if those protections are lifted, with different states managing specific populations, each with their own unique sets of characteristics. But even as significant progress toward the recovery of the species has occurred since grizzly bears were listed as protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1975, continued conservation and management efforts will remain necessary, the report states, and the most controversial management tools — like hunting — will require careful oversight.
“Montana is unique in the continental United States for its maintenance of grizzly bear populations and their core habitats that support connectivity and recovery in landscapes extending beyond primary conservation areas and state lines,” according to the council’s final draft recommendations. “Alongside the wilderness, parks, and protected lands that have provided refuge for grizzly bears over the past century, we recognize the essential role of working lands, both public and private, and local communities in helping to maintain a Montana landscape capable of supporting grizzlies. Grizzly bear expansion across the state has and will continue to bring challenges to traditional and emerging livelihoods as the human population of Montana increases simultaneously with the population of grizzly bears.”
The advisory council met through video conference on Aug. 5 beginning at noon, in a forum streamed live online at fwp.mt.gov/gbac. The council reviewed and discussed public input on its latest draft recommendations and discussed key issues that need further consideration.
In convening the advisory council, Bullock said Montana must play a proactive leadership role in grizzly management while a range of legal issues are resolved.
A critical part of the recovery strategy crafted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) established six distinct recovery zones in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington. The largest recovery zone in terms of distinct population segments of grizzlies is the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), a sprawling region situated in Northwest Montana that includes Glacier National Park and portions of two Indian reservations, five national forests and four wilderness areas, and is home to an estimated 1,000 bears. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho around Yellowstone National Park has an estimated 750 grizzlies.
“The recovery of grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems is a great conservation success. Still, official federal delisting has yet to come to fruition,” Bullock wrote in a memo to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Director Martha Williams.
Efforts to delist some population segments have been stymied by lawsuits, particularly as other population segments remain much smaller and disconnected, creating what Bullock termed a leadership void.
The Bitterroot Ecosystem straddling the Montana-Idaho border, for example, does not yet have any resident grizzly bears, and only a few bears have been recorded in the North Cascades Ecosystem in Washington. The Selkirk Ecosystem in north Idaho and the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem in Northwest Montana each have an estimated 50 to 60 grizzlies.
Efforts by federal officials to delist the Yellowstone grizzlies stalled two years ago when a federal judge in Missoula reversed a U.S. Interior Department decision that would have allowed hunting of the animals in areas around Yellowstone National Park.
FWS officials had hoped to start removing Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly bears from the endangered species list soon after delisting the Yellowstone segment, a move that would also allow people to hunt the animals. However, according to FWS bear recovery coordinator Hilary Cooley, those efforts are now on hold because of the ongoing litigation over delisting grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Those challenges and others prompted Bullock to move forward with the advisory council, seating a diverse range of stakeholders to help guide the discussion.
“Legal uncertainty has created a void requiring our leadership,” Bullock wrote in the memo to Williams. “As bears continue to expand in numbers and habitat, we must identify durable and inclusive strategies to address current issues and prepare for the future. This advisory council represents a key step toward Montana embracing the tremendous responsibility and opportunity of long-term Grizzly Bear recovery and management.”
As grizzly bear populations continue to expand, in some cases into areas they have not occupied for decades, management challenges and conflicts have increased.
“FWP, along with partner agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services and the FWS, work together to respond to conflicts as they occur,” Bullock stated in the memo. “However, the situation has become increasingly complex as bears move into areas of Montana outside of existing recovery zones, such as the Big Hole Valley, Little Belt Mountains, and the plains east of the Rocky Mountain Front.”