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If Grizzlies Delisted, Here's What Montana Plans to do

Is the Treasure State’s proposed Grizzly Bear Management Plan really a grizzly hunting plan?

Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 were placed on the endangered species list in 1975. The states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove grizzlies form the list. FWS is reviewing the petitions. Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 were placed on the endangered species list in 1975. The states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove grizzlies form the list. FWS is reviewing the petitions. Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
by Julia Barton

Montana is overhauling its management plan for one of Greater Yellowstone’s keystone predators, and public comment on the state’s proposed management plan for grizzly bears closed last month.

The 217-page 2022 Montana Grizzly Bear Management Plan will supplant the state’s 2006 western and 2013 southwestern management plans. The latest plan outlines species’ management in the event grizzlies are delisted from the Endangered Species Act, under which they have been protected as a threatened species in the Lower 48 since 1975. The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2023 began preparing a status review for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems to determine their future listing status.

If delisted, species management would shift from federal to state officials, and Greg Lemon, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ communication and education division administrator, says the plan provides a regulatory framework for state management of grizzlies.

“There wouldn't be a ton that would change,” Lemon told Mountain Journal. “A lot of the stuff that happens on the ground—managing conflict, dealing with education, helping communities, landowners and people avoid conflicts with bears, and then dealing with conflicts when they happen—is already done by the state right now.”
The plan states that it would be fully compliant with federal mandates under the Endangered Species Act and maintain agreements with federal, state and tribal agencies.
There is a five-year moratorium on hunting grizzlies upon a potential delisting, said Greg Lemon with Fish, Wildlife and Parks. However, the plan states an aim for a limited and regulated hunting season, which would be determined annually by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission. 
One part of the deal, according to Lemon, involves translocating bears between the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems to help bolster genetic diversity. These two populations have “biologically recovered” since their ESA listing, according to the plan. FWP also commits to supporting recovery efforts in the Bitterroot and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems, both of which were identified as recovery zones in the ESA listing but do not currently support grizzly populations.

Management will focus on 30 western Montana counties with a known or anticipated grizzly bear presence, although officials will have authority to remove conflict bears beyond these zones. The plan emphasizes human safety and authorities will “make all reasonable efforts to recommend (or implement, if appropriate) actions that minimize bear removal,” the document reads.

There is a five-year moratorium on hunting grizzlies upon a potential delisting, Lemon said, however the plan states an aim for a limited and regulated hunting season, which would be determined annually by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission. Additionally, Montana lawmakers have recently afforded landowners the right to shoot grizzlies that “threaten” livestock on their property. “Hunting [grizzlies] has always been a hot-button issue that we are talking about, but it's never been the focus,” Lemon said.

Grizzly bear expert Dr. Chris Servheen disagrees. Serving as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator for 35 years, Servheen is now president of the Montana Wildlife Federation and co-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Bear Specialist Group. “The whole plan is full of stuff about hunting, as if this is a plan to hunt grizzly bears rather than a plan to manage them,” he told Mountain Journal. “It’s a tragedy. It’s such a poor excuse for management.”
Montana’s latest grizzly management plan uses "estimated occupied range maps" to identify “core” zones, outside of which FWP will not prioritize maintaining a grizzly population. Use of a broader where grizzlies "may-be-present” map (shown above) would provide a more accurate portrayal of grizzly dispersal to guide management efforts, says Dr. Chris Servheen. Map courtesy FWP
Montana’s latest grizzly management plan uses "estimated occupied range maps" to identify “core” zones, outside of which FWP will not prioritize maintaining a grizzly population. Use of a broader where grizzlies "may-be-present” map (shown above) would provide a more accurate portrayal of grizzly dispersal to guide management efforts, says Dr. Chris Servheen. Map courtesy FWP
Servheen authored a lengthy letter to FWP on behalf of the Montana Wildlife Federation during the draft plan’s initial public comment period in January 2023, outlining his various concerns. In the letter, he recognizes that as a conservation organization, MWF—which dates back to the 1930s—supports management that would allow grizzlies to be delisted and managed by the state. But the existing draft is described in the letter as “misguided,” and “misleading.”

As Montana’s population grows and more folks live and recreate in grizzly bear country, the bruins will face increasing threats, demanding a stewardship approach rather than an intolerance approach, Servheen says. The plan emphasizes and justifies ways to kill non-conflict bears to reduce the state’s population and habitat, according to his interpretation.

“Bears weren't recovered so that this kind of intolerance could be foisted on grizzly bears with the death of lots of bears,” he said, noting that grizzly recovery is the result of decades of work that was funded by tens of millions in public tax dollars. Servheen believes raising state funds by auctioning trophy hunting tags for a recently recovered iconic species like the grizzly bear will rightly upset many Montanans.
“The whole plan is full of stuff about hunting, as if this is a plan to hunt grizzly bears rather than a plan to manage them. It’s a tragedy. It’s such a poor excuse for management.” – Dr. Chris Servheen, former grizzly bear recovery coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Hunting isn’t necessary for managing bears, according to Servheen, who explained that grizzly bears are a density-dependent species. Once the population begins nearing the land’s holding capacity, the bears self-regulate. Juvenile survival decreases as density increases, limiting population growth. His feedback on the plan emphasizes the need for FWP to prioritize conflict-reduction efforts above hunting, including use of non-lethal conflict reduction practices and teaching people how to mitigate risk. The plan does touch on these areas, although they are not as clearly outlined as hunting guidelines.

“Outside of this plan, we’ve been making a pretty big push for education and outreach in areas where we have established population grizzly bears or even transitory bears that come through,” Lemon said. “Between the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide [ecosystems,] we’re spending a lot of time and a lot of effort working with communities, landowners and the public on education about how to avoid conflicts with bears.”

Education must look different in different communities, Lemon explained. Some towns like Gardiner have coexisted with grizzlies for decades, while places like Helena don’t have a history of sharing the landscape with the bruins. Teaching folks in the areas between recovery zones how to avoid conflict will help the chances of connectivity, he said.

Concerns over the removal of bears in connectivity zones are also prominent in Servheen’s letter. The plan uses "estimated occupied range maps" to identify “core” zones, outside of which FWP will not prioritize maintaining a grizzly population. Use of a broader where grizzlies "may-be-present” map would provide a more accurate portrayal of grizzly dispersal to guide management efforts, Servheen explained.

As next steps, the state will analyze and address public comments and move into issuing a final plan and associated environmental impact statement. More information on the grizzly plan process can be found on the FWP website.
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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

Julia Barton
About Julia Barton

Julia Barton is a freelance journalist and communications specialist based out of Bozeman. A Montana native, she earned a journalism degree from the University of Southern California and reports on the environment, outdoor recreation and the arts.
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