Feds to consider delisting grizzly bears near Yellowstone, in northwest Montana

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct 12-month review; public submissions open Feb. 6

By: - February 3, 2023 2:14 pm
A grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

A grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. (Photo by Frank van Manen / USGS / Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 / Unedited)

The federal government has agreed to consider removing grizzly bears from a list of endangered and threatened wildlife in northwest Montana and the Yellowstone National Park area, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday.

The agency will conduct a yearlong study on grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), which includes Glacier National Park down through the Flathead National Forest, Blackfeet Indian Reservation and Bob Marshall Wilderness, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), which includes the park and surrounding areas in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

While USFWS said in a draft initial review that Montana and Wyoming had shown a commitment to grizzly recovery and conflict prevention, it also said that new state laws, including one in Montana that allows people to kill a grizzly bear that is actively attacking or killing livestock, “is of concern and needs to be evaluated.”

“We will fully evaluate these and all other potential threats, and associated state regulatory mechanisms, in detail when we conduct the status assessments and make the 12-month findings,” USFWS said in a news release.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) estimates there are approximately 1,100 grizzlies in the NCDE and around 1,000 in the GYE – up from just a few hundred when USFWS listed the grizzly bear as endangered in the lower 48 states in 1975 under the Endangered Species Act.

A map showing grizzly bear recovery zones and distribution areas.
A map showing grizzly bear recovery zones and distribution areas. (Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Previous delisting attempts overturned

Previous attempts to delist grizzly bears in 2007 and 2017 were overturned in court. Ryan Zinke, now a Republican Montana Congressman, was Secretary of the Interior when the 2017 delisting decision for the GYE was made. A judge overturned the decision, saying the decision did not consider the impact on grizzly populations outside of the Yellowstone area.

“The time to delist the grizzly is long overdue. As secretary, I followed the science and guidance of wildlife experts and delisted the Greater Yellowstone Grizzly only to have it overturned by a radical activist judge,” Zinke said in a statement Friday. “I will be working with the Montana and neighboring delegations to introduce legislation to delist the bear and restore state management to our wildlife.”

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who sent the petition to USFWS for the delisting of grizzlies in the NCDE in December 2021, said in a statement Friday the recovery of grizzlies there “represents a conservation success.”

“As part of that conservation success, the federal government has accepted our petition to delist the grizzly in the NCDE, opening the door to state management of this iconic American species,” the governor said in a written statement.

FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon said the department looks forward to working with wildlife service on the review.

“This is a critical next step on the path to delisting grizzly bears in the GYE and NCDE,” Lemon said in a written statement.

USFWS said Friday the NCDE and GYE “may qualify as their own distinct population segment” where grizzly populations have recovered, and threats have been reduced, enough to be delisted and put under state management, similar to wolves in Montana. 

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was designated as a distinct population segment in 2007 but that decision was overturned because of concerns about future losses white bark pine nuts grizzlies use as a food source.

To start the 12-month study, Montana and Wyoming had to show USFWS that delisting of grizzlies “may be warranted,” which the agency said was “a relatively low bar.” Now, the agency will conduct an in-depth scientific and informational review to see if the process will move forward to rulemaking. 

Starting Feb. 6, once the initial review is published, the public can click here to submit comments on the potential delisting to USFWS.

USFWS said the analysis will also include threats and conservation actions surrounding grizzlies, including state laws, to see whether they are adequate to be sure that hunting and trapping in the zones would not put the animals at risk of extinction.

Delisting anticipated at the Capitol

Montana law already states that grizzly bears are a recovered population and that conservation of the population “is best served under state management” with local, tribal and federal partners.

Lawmakers at the Capitol for the 2023 session have already started the process of setting up mechanisms for grizzly management should they be delisted in those specific zones.

Senate Bill 85, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, passed the Senate 37-12 on Jan. 27. The bill would, if passed and signed by the governor in its current form, have the state manage grizzlies to “minimize,” rather than avoid, conflict with humans and livestock.

The proposed law change would also require the state manage grizzly populations at levels needed to keep them off the Endangered Species Act list, which would include allowing them to be hunted and trapped. The bill would additionally change law so grizzly bears’ distribution would be managed through “nonlethal and preventative” measures in addition to lethal means.

Lang has another bill concerning potential delisting of grizzly bears that has yet to be formally introduced.

Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, said in a statement it was time to return management of grizzlies to the state.

“I’m glad to see this step in the right direction from the federal government,” Ellsworth said. “Now they need to follow through.”

FWP’s draft grizzly recovery plan sets goals, receives pushback

USFWS has had a grizzly bear recovery plan in place since 1982, which was updated in 1993.

FWP released its draft statewide management plan in December, which would replace existing plans for western and southwest Montana, respectively. The public comment period on the draft plan ends Saturday.

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks said in the plan it supports delisting in both the Northern Continental Divde and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems, saying grizzly populations there are both abundant enough that the zones are close to connecting populations – a goal of the agency, according to the report – and sometimes encroaching on areas populated by humans, especially as Montana’s growing human population expands further into grizzly territory.

The FWP says it hopes to reduce conflict between the bears and human populations with its plan. It already relocates and sometimes kills bears, with USFWS approval, that attack livestock or people.

If the NCDE is delisted and hunting allowed by the state there, Administrative Rules of Montana (ARM) calls for the population there to remain more than 800 bears. If the probability of that number holding up falls below 90%, hunting would again be banned.

Those same rules say sows with offspring would have to be documented in 21 of 23 bear management units of the primary conservation area and at least six of seven units of another zone “at least every six years.”

The rules would also require no more than 10% of independent sows older than age 2 and no more than 15% of independent males in the NCDE die in a year, lest hunting grizzlies there would also be banned.

In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, if delisting occurs and a hunting season is authorized, the FWP plan calls to maintain around 932 bears there, and if the population should fall to 831, hunting would be closed no matter if Montana, Wyoming or Idaho had authorized it there.

But a coalition of environmental, forest and pro-grizzly groups say the FWP’s plan is a disappointment and that the plan sees delisting “as a speed bump on the way to trophy hunting of grizzly bears and systematic population reductions as a matter of policy.”

The group said it feels the plan does not contain regulatory mechanisms that are strong enough for grizzlies to be delisted. In a lengthy comment it submitted to FWP earlier this week, the group said the population goals contained in ARM are not conducive with long-term connectivity of the populations or their sustainability.

“Grizzly bears will not be recovered until there is connectivity between breeding populations,” said Jim Miller, the president of Friends of the Bitterroot, in a written statement. “… But Montana FPW keeps capturing and moving them. The Draft Plan continues business as usual by not proposing relocation sites in connectivity areas which grizzly bears are currently reoccupying.”

Idaho had also submitted a petition asking USFWS to delist grizzly bears in the entire lower 48, but it was rejected, as USFWS said the state did not submit viable information to support the claim.

“We conclude that the petitioner failed to present credible scientific or commercial information such that a reasonable person conducting an impartial scientific review would conclude that removing the grizzly bear in the lower-48 States from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife may be warranted,” wrote USFWS Director Martha Williams in the draft document.

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.