Montana grizzly plan out for public review
(Missoula Current) Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has published its draft grizzly bear management plan and is asking for public comment.
On Tuesday, FWP released its draft plan and environmental impact statement detailing how the state would manage grizzly bears now and after the bear is delisted. FWP wildlife administrator Ken McDonald also announced the release to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee on Tuesday. The public has until Jan. 5 to comment.
As FWP Region 2 Supervisor Randy Arnold told an interagency grizzly bear subcommittee on Friday, FWP Grizzly Bear Planning Coordinator Rich Harris spent the past two years writing the plan, incorporating aspects of Montana’s two existing grizzly plans and interagency conservation strategy documents for Montana’s four recovery areas.
FWP previously had two regional grizzly bear management plans, one for western Montana and one for the southwest near Yellowstone National Park.
“Rich gathered a lot of information from the recommendations from the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council in 2019. Those of you who followed the grizzly bear advisory council, they really did a wonderful job getting to the meat and challenges of managing grizzly bears in today's environment and the future environment,” Arnold said on Friday. “It’s a nice collection of where we’ve been and where we want to be tomorrow.”
The plan and environmental impact statement covers a wide range of topics, including conflict prevention and response, transplanting bears, management of motorized access, climate change and hunting.
The plan would not establish statewide minimum or maximum numeric population objectives. Achieving and sustaining recovered populations in the established zones would be an objective but not so much outside recovery zones.
“Statewide objectives would include a low density of grizzly bears between (recovery zones) that could provide connectivity among biological cores where feasible. Bears could be moved occasionally if natural connectivity is lacking. Maintaining grizzly bear presence would not be an objective where connectivity between cores is unlikely,” according to FWP documents.
Climate change is causing conditions that are shortening bears’ hibernation period and affecting bears’ food sources. The plan says that FWP “would consider” that when allocating resources or setting regulations.
Hunting is a contentious issue that concerns some and thrills others. The plan would open the option for grizzly bear hunting but “the decision on whether to hunt or not hunt would rest with the Fish and Wildlife Commission.”
After the 2023 Legislative session, all seven members of the FWP commission will be Gianforte appointees.
Currently, Montana’s wolf trapping season is delayed in areas occupied by grizzlies until bears are in their dens. The plan doesn’t address whether that delay would change once grizzlies are delisted.
Some grizzly bear advocates are suspicious of the implications and timing. During last week’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, advocates asked FWP for a longer comment period, considering the holiday season, but received no response.
"Regardless of what the state puts in a plan, one need only look at the wolf and grizzly bear bills passed during the last legislative session and signed by the governor to realize that grizzly bear management by the state of Montana right now would be a disaster,” said Derek Goldman, Endangered Species Coalition National Field Director.
"Grizzly bears are a critical piece of our western wildlife heritage, and while we look forward to reviewing this draft plan, we will also continue emphasizing the dangers of transferring full management authority to a hostile state administration and legislature."
The grizzly bear is still listed as threatened, so Montana doesn’t have authority to manage bears without federal oversight. FWP says the plan will help guide current management efforts but also prepare the state to take over management should the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delist either the Yellowstone or northern grizzly populations.
The Gianforte administration has petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population and supports Wyoming’s petition to delist the Yellowstone population. The Yellowstone population is genetically different from the rest of Montana’s grizzlies, so it could be delisted once the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finishes complying with two court-ordered analyses and shows that connectivity can be established with other populations.
However, the NCDE population is not genetically separate from the almost-nonexistent Bitterroot population and the struggling Cabinet-Yaak population, which depend on the NCDE population for augmentation. Recent court rulings indicate that the NCDE population cannot be delisted separately from other northern populations, according to the Endangered Species Act. So, bear advocates could challenge attempts to delist the NCDE population.
To answer questions about the draft plan and EIS, FWP will host a statewide Zoom webinar on Dec. 15 from 6 to 8 p.m. Details on how to join the webinar will be posted on the FWP website closer to that date.
To review the plan and comment, go online to https://fwp.mt.gov/aboutfwp/
Contact Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.