Montana FWP adopts management plan for grizzly bears, but delisting must come first

The bears were grazing for winter at the Blackleaf Wildlife Management area. (Missoula Current file photo)

Grizzly bears are still federally protected, but Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is prepared to manage them once they’re not.

The FWP Commission on Monday gave final approval to an administrative rule that adopts interagency grizzly population objectives for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, a 16,000-square-mile area that includes Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee hurriedly published a conservation strategy for the NCDE population in June in advance of what was expected to be a rapid delisting process. The population objectives are part of the conservation strategy that applies to federal, state and tribal agencies, so the rule targets FWP’s responsibilities.

According to the rule, FWP will monitor bear deaths to ensure that the population within the designated monitoring area remains above 800 bears.

In addition, at least 90 percent of female bears must survive and no more than 15 percent males can die annually over a six-year running average.

Finally, biologists must be able to show that, at least once every six years, female bears with cubs are living in 21 of the 23 bear management units in the designated monitoring area and in six of seven units of the surrounding buffer zone.

Those were the details that the commission put out to public comment in August.

On Monday, FWP administrator Ken McDonald said FWP received more than 5,200 comments, but only a small percentage addressed the rule’s details.

The “overwhelming majority” of comments were about whether the bear should be delisted and some wanted to be able to comment on the entire conservation strategy, because the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee didn’t allow a public comment period.

For that reason, some said Montana shouldn’t approve a rule based upon a strategy that didn’t go through the public process.

“We didn’t feel there were any substantial comments that necessitated changing the proposed rule,” McDonald said. “The bears are still listed under the ESA, so ESA regulations will remain in effect. The idea with this rule is, upon delisting, this rule will come into effect when the state has management authority.”

This is what FWP biologists were preparing to do until September, when Missoula federal District Court Judge Dana Christensen put all grizzly bears back on the Endangered Species List.

He ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to follow ESA policy when it delisted the Yellowstone population by itself. He told the agency to analyze the effect that removing one population from protection would have on the viability of the other populations.

With that, it was evident that the NCDE population wouldn’t be delisted soon.

The USFWS has a few more weeks to decide if it will appeal Christensen’s ruling. The agency’s grizzly bear coordinator will likely give an update to the IGBC when it meets in Missoula on Tuesday.

In the meantime, the state of Wyoming gave notice last week that it will move forward with its own appeal.

It’s unlikely that Montana would take the step of joining that appeal because it’s historically been more measured than surrounding states about managing predator species. The state had held off on scheduling a grizzly bear hunt around Yellowstone National Park, unlike Wyoming and Idaho.

After hearing several commenters argue that creating a grizzly bear rule now was premature, commission chair Dan Vermillion vouched for FWP’s ability to manage the bear if given the chance. He pointed to the work bear biologists have been doing with recreationists, hunters and landowners to decrease human-bear conflicts as the kind of effort that is needed.

“The biggest impediment to grizzly bear populations in Montana is not whether it’s on the endangered species list or whether it’s off the endangered species list – it’s whether we can create the adequate degree of tolerance for the presence of grizzly bears on the landscape,” Vermillion said.

“How do we go about getting tolerance in places along the Marias or out by Fort Benton, places where bears are starting to show up?  They don’t last very long when they do. And that’s because they’re getting ahead of the social tolerance and social acceptance of bears on the landscape.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.