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Federal Government May Remove Grizzly Bears from Endangered Species List in Montana, Wyoming

'Grizzly bear recovery and conservation are complex issues,' said the United States Fish and Wildlife Service

A federal agency has agreed to review petitions filed by Montana and Wyoming requesting the grizzly bear be removed from the national Endangered Species List.

Montana and Wyoming have asked that their respective state governments be permitted to oversee the management of the grizzly bear populations in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, Glacier National Park, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem which encompasses Yellowstone National Park.

The United States Fish & Wildlife Service announced on Feb. 3 that both petitions presented “substantial information indicating the grizzly bear … may qualify as their own distinct population segment and may warrant removal from the list of endangered and threatened wildlife.”

The federal agency will now review a year’s worth of “the best available scientific and commercial data available” for the two ecosystems to determine if it will grant the request. 

In its statement, the USFWS said: 

Grizzly bear recovery and conservation are complex issues, requiring coordination among federal agencies, states, Tribes, and other stakeholders. The Service appreciates the states historical commitments and partnerships to recover bears, particularly through conflict prevention efforts that have been effective in reducing human-caused mortality. However, the impact of recently enacted state laws and regulations affecting these two grizzly bear populations 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 finding.

In the 1980s, 386 grizzly bears inhabited the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. As of July 2021, more than 1,000 grizzly bears live in the area. Approximately 136 grizzly bears lived in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 1975. The population grew to an estimated 700 bears by 2016.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service denied a petition submitted by Idaho that would declassify grizzly bears as endangered. Governor Brad Little had “included documentation of decades of successful grizzly bear recovery work in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), which includes Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park, as well as portions of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming” as evidence his state’s ability to manage the grizzly bear population.

“Bureaucratic gridlock is keeping healthy grizzly populations on the threatened species list unnecessarily,” Little said in a statement on March 10, 2022. “For decades, Idaho, our sister states, tribes, local governments – and especially our rural communities – have invested considerable resources in this effort, and they have shouldered much of the burden of rebuilding grizzly bear populations.”

The federal Fish & Wildlife Service enacted a multi-phase grizzly bear recovery plan in 1993 that included a provision permitting the delisting of individual populations when the they met recovery goals. 

Little’s office noted that the Greater Yellowstone Area grizzly bear population met the agency’s recovery criteria in 2002.

In 2007, the USFWS made its first attempt to remove grizzly bears from the [Endangered Species List],” report Field & Stream. “Grizzlies have been delisted and re-listed multiple times since then, with the most recent attempt occurring in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2017. That decision was ultimately overturned by the 9th Circuit Courts of Appeals just days before grizzly bear hunts were slated to take place in Wyoming and Idaho.”

USFWS Director Martha Williams warned Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks Director Hank Worsech that she has concerns about a proposed state law that “conflicts with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and is inconsistent with commitments made by the State of Montana on how grizzly bears would be managed if they were to be delisted.”

In a letter to Worsech, Williams wrote that “SB 98 amended Montana Code to legalize the taking of a grizzly bear in the act of depredating on livestock.”

“To bring Montana code into alignment with federal regulations, the language that allows the taking of a grizzly bear to protect livestock would need to be removed from the law or language would need to be added to the law to clarify that the taking of a grizzly bear by a private individual to protect livestock would only be lawful after the grizzly bear has been delisted federally,” she wrote. 

“We are also concerned that other recently passed legislation allowing wolf snaring and trapping and allowing the use of dogs to pursue black bears in occupied grizzly bear range will invite conflicts between hunters and grizzly bears, including potential injuries and mortalities for grizzly bears and risks to human safety,” Williams added. “The current 2023 Montana legislative session presents a good opportunity to address these issues.”

Montana Senator John Tester, a Democrat, praised the USFWS for agreeing to consider the petitions to delist grizzly bears.

Defending Montana’s outdoor heritage and wildlife is critically important to our way of life – and that starts with following the best available science. After decades of collaborative work between federal, state, local, and Tribal groups, we’ve seen grizzly bears in Montana come back from the brink of extinction, and that’s something to celebrate,” he said in a statement. “Now state government needs to develop science-based management plans to ensure success, and I’ll hold the Biden Administration’s feet to the fire to provide support.”

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