BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Montana won't hold a grizzly bear hunt in 2018 after state officials said Thursday they want to avoid complicating lawsuits over the animal's legal status.
Federal officials last year lifted Endangered Species Act protections for about 700 bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, opening the door to potential hunting in the three-state region.
Montana wildlife commissioners said letting hunters kill some of those bears could give momentum to pending legal challenges that seek to restore protections. Wildlife advocates and Native Americans who brought the lawsuits had argued that hunting would reverse the species decades-long recovery.
Commissioners voted unanimously against a hunt this year. But Commission Chairman Dan Vermillion said Thursday's action doesn't preclude a Montana grizzly hunt in the future.
Grizzly hunting in Wyoming could begin this fall after state officials said last month they want hunting regulations drafted.
No decision has been made in Idaho.
"Let the other states go off and tilt at windmills," said Montana wildlife commissioner Shane Colton. "We'll hunker down and manage other wildlife species."
The Yellowstone grizzly population has increased from an estimated 136 bears when they were granted protections in the mid-1970s. Bears now come into frequent conflicts with humans, through attacks on domestic livestock and people who encounter bears unexpectedly in the forest.
Under a complex formula established by state and federal officials to manage Yellowstone grizzlies, only limited hunting is allowed. The number of bears that can be killed in any given year is to be divvied up among the three states.
For Montana, which comprises about a third of the Yellowstone region, that formula would have allowed just one female and six male bears to be hunted in 2018. If the first bear killed were female, officials said they would have to stop hunting so that a second female would not be mistakenly killed.
Wildlife advocates who attended Thursday's commission meeting said they were grateful Montana was taking a prudent approach to bear hunting.