After Montana’s new Grizzly Bear Advisory Council met last week in Bozeman to map out a state management plan for the expanding grizzly bear populations near Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, researchers in Missoula railed against turning management over from federal agencies to the state.
As grizzly bear populations in Montana expand into areas where they haven’t been seen for generations, so does the number of potential conflicts with humans.
The Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council’s goal will recommend updates to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ current management practices. Some of those recommendations could fall within current authority. FWP works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to carry out management actions, but Fish and Wildlife has the ultimate authority over grizzly management in the Lower 48. Some recommendations from the advisory council might only be possible if and when bears are delisted under the Endangered Species Act.
Michele Dieterich is a teacher in Hamilton and one of the 18 council members.
"One of the reasons I applied to the council was to try to get ahead of the game and start an education program and a mitigation program in the Bitterroot before the bears arrive."
Over the two-day meeting in Bozeman, biologists shared where grizzlies are on the landscape currently and where they’re likely to be seen in the near future. Some of the estimated 700 bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have been moving north and west into the Gravelly Range near Ennis and south and east into Wyoming.
The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem around Glacier National Park has a little over 1,000 grizzlies. Bears from that population have been moving south and farther east.
FWP biologist Cecily Costello said grizzlies from the two populations are separated by less than 50 miles. This is one metric federal managers will use to argue both sets of bears are ready for state management.
Following the advisory council meeting, critics of removing federal endangered species protections from both populations of bears met in Missoula.
Five independent researchers at the University of Montana on Friday called for state and federal wildlife officials to make connectivity between populations more of a priority in their grizzly recovery plan under the Endangered Species Act. It was one of a handful of arguments against turning management over to states.
The high numbers of grizzly deaths and removals around Glacier National Park this year also came up. The 50 grizzly deaths and removals in northwest Montana this year is just one below last year's record high.
Most grizzly deaths are happening on the edge of recovery zones. State and federal officials say that’s because the number of bears on the landscape is increasing, but critics like wildlife researcher David Mattson say it’s the lack of food sources like seeds from whitebark pine and cutthroat trout that are driving bears to roam.
"Not coincidentally, where we saw the greatest losses, we’ve seen the greatest increase in distribution, almost certainly driving much of that increase in distribution."
Mattson and others called on the Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to end the court battle over delisting Yellowstone bears as well as efforts to propose grizzlies near Glacier National Park for delisting. In a recent visit to Montana, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the Yellowstone court case would not slow down efforts to delist bears near Glacier.
It could take a year or more before a ruling comes down on the Yellowstone case and the governor’s advisory council is due to release its recommendations in the summer of 2020.
Clarification: This story was updated to reflect that the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council’s purpose is to recommend updates to FWP’s current management practices but that the council could also make recommendations for management after grizzlies in Montana are delisted.