Draft rules for hunting grizzly bears in Montana were released Wednesday.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Spokesman Ron Aasheim says the proposed rules are part of the bigger-picture effort to take Yellowstone area grizzlies off of the federal endangered species list.
"What we’re doing is a requirement of the delisting rule, so if we want to get to delist we’ve got to do this."
Montana’s wildlife commissioners support the delisting proposal the federal government issued in March. It would allow Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to issue grizzly hunting permits as long the overall grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone area doesn’t fall below about 600 bears. Aasheim says the exact number of grizzlies allowed to be hunted in Montana is yet to be determined.
"These regulations that we are suggesting be considered don’t have specific quotas. It’s just a framework, and that will all depend on bear numbers in those specific areas.
Eric Whitney: But we’re by no means talking about unlimited numbers?
Aasheim: At the most, what we’re saying is, maybe 10 bears. But again, it’s way premature to be talking about those ultimate numbers.
The draft grizzly hunting regulations go before Montana Fish and Wildlife commissioners next Thursday.
"They’ll make a decision as to what parts of that recommendation from the Fish and Wildlife agency they accept, and it’ll then go to the public. So it’s the first step in a process to ultimately have a hunting season of grizzly bears should they be delisted and population levels warrant that."
But some prominent bear biologists say grizzly populations levels are already precarious, and likely to decline further as the climate changes.
"I don’t think we can afford to have any increase in mortality for any reason at all," says David Mattson.
Mattson spent more than 20 years studying Yellowstone grizzlies, mostly for the federal government. Now retired near Livingston, he says that grizzly numbers already appear flat to declining in recent years.
Mattson doesn’t believe state and federal wildlife managers’ conclusions that there are currently about 700 to a thousand grizzlies around Yellowstone, and that their numbers are stable and viable.
"If we look out two years into the future using the exact same methods we’re using now, we will be down at a population estimate of 600, at which point even by their reckoning there will be no prospect of any sport hunting at all. And that not too long after that we will be below 600 headed to 500."
Mattson is also concerned hunting in Montana would make it harder for bears to migrate between Yellowstone and other grizzly populations to the northwest. That concept is called “connectivity.”
"I think connectivity is paramount for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears’ conservation. If you’re looking to the indefinite future the security of this population will depend on it being connected the next nearest population of grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide."
But Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Ron Aasheim says federal wildlife managers have already looked at that in their proposal to delist grizzlies.
"The connectivity issue has been addressed, and that has been determined not to be an issue with hunting bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem."
Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider the draft grizzly hunting regulations Thursday.