Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service informed Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks that bills being passed by the state Legislature could keep grizzly bears on the Endangered Species list.

In a letter dated the same day that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would assess grizzly bear populations for possible delisting, USFWS Director Martha Williams, told FWP Director Hank Worsech that delisting might not be favorable unless FWP promotes legislation that establishes wise conservation strategies for grizzly bears, including those published by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, instead of what’s contained in some of the more onerous bills backed by Republicans. Williams served as FWP director between 2017 and 2020.

Williams highlighted the unlawful aspects of a bill passed by the 2021 Legislature. Senate Bill 98 tried to legalize killing any grizzly bear that attacked, killed or threatened to kill a person or livestock. The Legislature passed SB 98 on party-line votes, and Gov. Greg Gianforte signed it in May 2021.

But the bill violates the Endangered Species Act. Grizzly bears are still protected as a threatened species, which means any “taking” of a bear must be authorized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unless it involves serious threats to a person’s life.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services is responsible for dealing with all livestock conflicts and receives funding from the Fish and Wildlife Service to do so. So Williams encouraged FWP to add language to the SB 98 law specifying that it’s only valid once the grizzly bear is delisted.

“The amended state law could lead members of the public to wrongly believe that killing a grizzly bear when it is killing or threatening to kill livestock is legal, when in fact it is illegal under the ESA and individuals taking a bear under these circumstances would be subject to possible civil and criminal penalties,” Williams wrote.

Even if the bear is delisted, the letter said SB 98 fails to identify population-level triggers where such killing would be suspended and provides no method for notifying Montanans that killing bears threatening livestock should stop.

Montana has yet to update the law, and the 2021 Legislature passed additional bills that Williams said raised doubt as to whether FWP could manage grizzly bears wisely. The Service must consider “the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms” when determining whether to list or delist a species or population, Williams said.

“We are also concerned that other recently passed legislation allowing wolf snaring and trapping and allowing the use of dogs to pursue black bears in occupied grizzly bear range will invite conflicts between hunters and grizzly bears, including potential injuries and mortalities for grizzly bears and risks to human safety. The current 2023 Montana legislative session presents a good opportunity to address these issues,” Williams said.

FWP spokesman Greg Lemon refused comment.

This session, Republicans are adding more bills that would mandate political requirements for FWP instead of allowing wildlife biologists and the FWP commission the flexibility to make science-based decisions and react to population changes.

Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, who sponsored several bills in 2021 liberalizing wolf hunting and trapping, has three similar bills already in the queue that would extend trapping, snares and the use of dogs to hunt bears to all areas outside grizzly and lynx recovery zones.

Currently, FWP prohibits trapping everywhere grizzly bears are known to exist until bears are safely in their dens, so the prohibition extends across more of western Montana than just the recovery areas.

Derek Goldman, Endangered Species Coalition national field director, said Williams’ letter paralleled everything that wildlife advocates have been saying since 2021.

“The trajectory of wildlife management in Montana has become very anti-carnivore and aggressive toward carnivores. It was good that the director is acknowledging this trajectory of policy,” Goldman said. “I’m glad they’re taking note of the threats to grizzly bears created by recently adopted and newly proposed state policies. Given these policies in Montana and Idaho for that matter, state management of grizzly bears would be a disaster.”

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