FWP Extends Public Comment Period on Proposed Grizzly Bear Management Plan

Wildlife managers are seeking public input on a statewide plan that will provide the framework for long-term grizzly bear management

By Tristan Scott
Martha Williams, left, Tim Manley, center and Neil Anderson attend to a young male grizzly bear captured near Marion. Photo courtesy of Montana FWP

The Montana agency tasked with the long-term conservation of grizzly bears has extended its deadline for public comment on a draft management plan after receiving “multiple requests” for more time to review the documents, which are meant to provide the framework for statewide management once protections are removed for grizzlies under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The new public comment deadline on Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ (FWP) draft grizzly bear management plan and environmental impact statement (EIS) is Feb. 4, 2023.

The draft plan was informed by existing bear plans and conservation strategies for portions of the state, as well as the federal recovery plan and the work of the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council, appointed under the previous administration in 2019.  

The decision to move the deadline came after more than two-dozen conservation organizations lobbied FWP with complaints, many of them noting that the draft plan is the product of months of technical work by the advisory council.

“It took the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council months to go through all the technical information,” said Michele Dieterich, who served for more than a year on the advisory council whose members were appointed by former Gov. Bullock. “The public deserves enough time to read through the extensive plan, clarify points, ask questions of FWP, and compose comments. A mere 30 days over the holidays when FWP offices will be closed just does not cut it.”

FWP is required to provide 30 days for public comment on the draft EIS. However, the agency may extend the public comment period for up to an additional 30 days.

According to FWP Director Hank Worsech, the agency’s extension comes “in response to multiple public requests for additional time to review” the draft plan and EIS, as well as complaints that the agency released its draft plan too close to busy holidays.

“Releasing the draft management plan for a 30-day comment period over the holidays is a strategic move to minimize public involvement,” according to Jocelyn Leroux, the Montana director with Western Watersheds Project. “This is unacceptable considering the implications of this document detailing long-term grizzly bear management in the state. An extension of the comment period is essential.”

Keith Hammer, chair of the Swan View Coalition, also pressured the agency to extend the deadline “to compensate for the busy holiday season.”

In addition to the difficulties presented by the holidays, the organizations cite the technical nature of the documents released for public comment which totals 468 pages.

“We know the holidays are a busy time for people and their families,” Worsech said in a statement announcing that he’d moved the original Jan. 5, 2023, deadline up a month. “We want to make sure people have a chance to share their best ideas with us and so extending the comment period by 30 days will allow for that.”

The new plan would replace two existing plans – a 2006 management plan for western Montana’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) and a separate 2013 plan for southwest Montana’s Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). The proposed comprehensive statewide plan includes both populations of grizzlies, the viability of which FWP says it is committed to maintaining “while prioritizing human safety.”

Montana has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to delist grizzly bears in the NCDE and supports Wyoming’s petition to delist grizzly bears in the GYE, where they have surpassed recovery goals. Other recovery areas in Montana include the Cabinet-Yaak and Bitterroot ecosystems. 

“Although grizzly bears are federally listed under the Endangered Species Act, having a plan like this in place will lay out Montana’s vision and general framework for management of grizzly bears, whether or not they are listed,” Worsech stated. 

The draft plan will guide management statewide, with particular focus on areas with documented grizzly bear presence, as well as in those places where they are expected to expand. The draft plan addresses how bears will be managed outside of federal recovery zones, including connectivity areas between the zones. The EIS addresses potential environmental impacts of implementing the plan.

To review the plan and comment, go online to https://fwp.mt.gov/aboutfwp/public-comment-opportunities/grizzly-bear-management-plan. To comment by mail, send to Wildlife Division, Grizzly Bear Plan and EIS, P.O. Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620. Comments can also be emailed to  [email protected].

Once the new comment period is concluded, FWP staff will review the comments, make adjustments to the plan and EIS as necessary and Worsech will issue a record of decision, in accordance with the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). The department will then present the plan to the Fish and Wildlife Commission for their review and potential endorsement.

For more information, including the draft plan, EIS, supporting documents, and to comment online, go to https://fwp.mt.gov/aboutfwp/public-comment-opportunities/grizzly-bear-management-plan.