The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission has set official goals for the number of grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem if the animal is taken off the endangered species list, as is expected later this year.
The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, or NCDE, contains Glacier National Park and parts of five national forests and four wilderness areas, along with other land. It’s estimated to be home to more than 1,000 grizzly bears – the largest population in the continental U.S.
The rule approved Thursday dictates that wildlife managers must be 90 percent sure that there are at least 800 bears in what’s known as the “demographic monitoring area,” or a zone of about 16,000 square miles within the NCDE. It also requires that female grizzlies with cubs must be present in most of the area.
And it says biologists will monitor the movement of bears in between the NCDE and other grizzly populations in Montana.
Cecily Costello, a grizzly bear biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says the grizzly population in the area appears healthy
"Our survival rate for females is way above the threshold, and our mortality rate for males and females are well below the threshold."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to propose withdrawing the grizzly bear from Endangered Species Act protections this fall. In order to do so, the state of Montana has to demonstrate that there will be no continued threat to the grizzly’s population. This rule is one step in that direction.
"We all know what the grizzly bear means, to this state, to Indian tribes, to the nation and to the future of wild places," said Hal Harper, one of the more than a dozen people who offered comment at the hearing in Helena.
Harper said the state needs to ensure that tribes have a voice in the delisting process, and that it should focus on preserving habitat for grizzlies.
"You wanna give the Montana griz the best shot at survival well into the future, do what you can to help preserve these wildlands for the state of Montana."
Most comments focused on the conservation strategy for the bear, a six chapter, 300 page document. A draft was put up for public comment in 2013, but there’s been no comment period for the revised document in the five years since.
"We continue to have concerns that the complete strategy has not, in any meaningful way, had a public comment period," says Bethany Cotton.
Cotton is the wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. She says there have been lots of changes to the massive document in the last five years.
Others, like Brian Peck, an independent wildlife consultant from Columbia Falls, cited U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s written promise to take comment.
"The comment period by FWP in no way absolves the Fish and Wildlife Service from keeping its word and its responsibility to hold the promised public comment period on the conservation strategy," Peck said.
Peck also said that agreeing to protect 800 bears when the population is over a 1,000 doesn’t make sense.
"If you had a $1,000 in the bank and went to withdraw it, and they only would give you 800 of those dollars, you’d be looking for another bank."
Others said they’re concerned about increasing conflict between bears and landowners as the grizzly's population and range continue to expand.
The 60-day public comment period for the rule passed on Thursday will open on August 24 and will include four public hearings. The rule will likely go into effect in late December.