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Montana Wildlife Officials Approve Grizzly Hunting Framework

A bill that would ban sport hunting of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states gets a hearing in a U.S. House committee Wednesday. It would extend protections for grizzlies even if they’re removed from the endangered species list.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Game management bureau chief John Vore says even though the regulations are approved there is no timeline yet for the hunting of grizzlies to begin.

Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission approved hunting guidelines for grizzly bears Wednesday in Helena.

The regulations for hunting grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are a part the process for removing grizzlies there from the federal endangered species list. Federal wildlife managers proposed that in March. Other grizzly populations would remain on the list.

But FWP game management bureau chief John Vore says even though the regulations are approved there is no timeline yet for the hunting of grizzlies to begin.

"We are not proposing a grizzly bear hunting season at this time, and I almost feel like repeating that again because there were so many comments to that. We are not proposing a grizzly bear hunting season at this time. What we are proposing is the structure, or the framework of what a season would look like, if and when we do a grizzly bear hunting season. This is something required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a guarantee that the grizzly bear population in Montana would be looked after and cared for, that we wouldn’t go back onto a situation where we would need to be re-listing the bear again."

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Yellowstone grizzly bear population has grown from as few as a 140 bears in the mid 1970s to an estimated 700 or more today.

Vore says the framework the Commission approved Wednesday is very conservative and will be highly regulated. It includes provisions to protect females and young, and a bear that’s in its den.

There will also be a mandatory hunt orientation course for bear license holders, and hunters will have to report their kill within 24 hours.

During the public comment period of the Commission meeting, Wes Miles, a member of Trap Free Montana Public Lands and a former Yellowstone park ranger, called for caution in developing hunting regulations. He says there is danger of more bear deaths happening than wildlife officials can keep track of.

"The ethic of shoot, shovel and shut up prevailed in a lot of these backcountry areas. When you decide about the hunting format, and if you just go by the number they have of known mortalities, all these unknown mortalities aren’t going to be factored in there. And given the grizzly's extremely low reproductive rate, it doesn’t take much to put them back in the same depleted state their population was prior to all the efforts that went into the recovery. I’d like you to consider this when you do come up with a plan for the hunting model. Thank you."

The structure approved by Montana’s FWP Commission says the state's allocation of grizzly deaths, from hunting or any other reason, would be less than 10 in most years, and zero in some. The number of bear deaths allowed each year will be based on the overall Yellowstone grizzly population. If it falls below 600 bears, hunting will be stopped.

During the meeting, commissioners also voted to approve an agreement with Idaho and Wyoming to work together in the delisting process.

Montana FWP’s Ken McDonald says that the tri-state agreement and the hunting regulations structure were conditions of the delisting rule from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Federal wildlife managers have not finalized their decision to remove Yellowstone grizzlies from the endangered species list, but are expected to in the coming months.

"A condition of delisting is we finalize a conservation strategy and that is in the works right now. And then that we also have a hunting season framework in place. So that is the main reason we are here today, is make sure we finalize those last two bullets."

McDonald says Montana needs to have a plan to ensure the grizzly population remains healthy after delisting.

"There is a lot of focus right now on grizzly bear hunting and whether we should hunt or not. But we want to remind everybody first and foremost that this is a success story, it's a conservation success story. We’ve recovered grizzly bears and are ready to move on to delisting and management."

Right before the deciding vote to approve the tri-state agreement and the griz hunting structure, FWP Commissioner Dan Vermillion encouraged delisting supporters and opponents to work together through this process.

"And part of that social contract with the endangered species list is that once federal management has gotten grizzly bears, or any endangered species, back to the point where they are no longer endangered, that we return that management back to the states where it belongs. And this is a great opportunity for the state and for the federal government to show that the system does work and the process does work, and I hope that it is seen that way, and I think it will eventually by most folks involved."

The Commission's actions Wednesday are part of a delisting process that will shift the balance of management of the Yellowstone grizzly bears from federal to state management.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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