Montana FWP releases draft administrative rules to manage grizzlies if delisted

By: - June 27, 2023 3:20 pm

A grizzly bear walks along the edge of Blacktail Ponds in 2017 in Yellowstone National Park (Photo by Jacob W. Frank | National Park Service via Flickr).

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks issued its first look this week at draft rules for how the state plans to manage grizzly bears should the federal government agree to delist them as endangered species in areas of Montana.

FWP on Monday released the proposed draft of the Administrative Rules of Montana changes that would be made if the Fish and Wildlife Commission decides to move forward into the formal rulemaking process with the current draft language for updated grizzly management rules after a public hearing scheduled for Aug. 17.

During the legislative session this spring, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 295, sponsored by Sen. Butch Gillespie, R-Ethridge, which set the state on a path to clarify how the state might manage grizzly bears, their genetic exchange, and potential conflicts should they be delisted by the federal government. The Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to move forward to the drafting process after a June 8 meeting.

Part of the SB 295 requires the Fish and Wildlife Commission to adopt rules before the grizzlies are delisted – something the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services also asked for when it undertook a 12-month study on grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) in western Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), which sits in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

USFWS said in its draft initial review that a law in Montana that allows people to kill a grizzly that is actively attacking or killing livestock was of concern, while also saying the state had shown a commitment to grizzly population recover and conflict prevention.

“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 at the time.

Proposed amendments to the current grizzly bear policy in ARM 12.9.1401 would make changes to say that sport hunting of the bears would be allowed “when deemed appropriate” and that grizzlies that don’t endanger human life but cause “non-livestock” related property losses would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

The current language says that grizzlies “committing depredations” that don’t endanger human life but are causing property losses should be evaluated in that manner.

There are a host of new proposed draft rules for grizzly management as well that outline the state’s objective to “maintain and enhance” the grizzly population and its connectivity, establish a framework for annual quotas, create a mortality threshold, and outline both a nonlethal and lethal management framework.

The proposed rules would also prohibit people from baiting grizzly bears and would require the FWP to manage delisted grizzly populations for five years before proposing a hunting or harvest season for grizzlies.

The rules would also require the department to publish an annual report and continue to require translocation of the bears between the NCDE, GYE and other populations for genetic diversity purposes.

There will be a brief public comment period during the Aug. 17 meeting as the commission weighs going into the formal Montana Administrative Procedure Act rulemaking process, according to FWP, but further written public comment periods and hearings would take place if the commission votes to start the formal process. FWP has recommended the commission do so.

“We know grizzly bear management continues to be controversial,” FWP Director Dustin Temple said in a statement. “With these rules, FWP continues to establish solid framework for grizzly bear management to ensure that once they are delisted, grizzly bears in Montana will be thoughtfully managed so as to never need federal protections again. We’ll do this with strong consideration for the lives and property of those who live and work in grizzly bear country.”

While grizzly bears are still listed under the Endangered Species Act in the Lower 48, FWP believes there are 1,100 grizzlies in the NCDE and about 1,000 in the GYE, which the department said met the recovery goal for the populations. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, who has pushed for grizzlies to be delisted, said in February the recovery represents a great conservation success.”

A public comment period for FWP’s draft statewide management plan ended in February. 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.

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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.