Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) After reviewing three state petitions to delist the grizzly bear, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will begin an assessment of the species based on two of the requests.

On Friday morning, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said petitions requesting to delist the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide grizzly bear populations provided enough information that the Service would begin a status review to determine whether they warranted delisting. Species status reviews usually take about a year.

The state of Wyoming petitioned to delist the Greater Yellowstone population and the state of Montana under the Gianforte administration petitioned to delist the Northern Continental Divide population in December 2021.

On Friday, Governor Greg Gianforte said he was happy the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accepted Montana’s petition.

“After decades of work, the grizzly bear has more than recovered in the NCDE, which represents a conservation success,” Gianforte said in a release. “As part of that conservation success, the federal government has accepted our petition to delist the grizzly in the NCDE, opening the door to state management of this iconic American species.”

Sen. Steve Daines also reacted with satisfaction. In March 2021, Daines sponsored a bill that would have Congressionally removed protection from the Greater Yellowstone population.

“This is great news for Montana. The science is clear—it’s time to delist the grizzly bear. I’m glad to see Fish and Wildlife Service listen to science, Montanans, and Governor Gianforte to move forward with the process to delist the grizzly bear in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems,” Daines said in a release.

Some wildlife advocates reacted with disappointment, worried it will pave the way for eventual trophy hunting in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Andrea Zaccardi of the Center for Biological Diversity pointed out that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned in its announcement that “the impact of recently enacted state statutes affecting these two grizzly bear populations is of concern and will require careful consideration.”

“It’s disheartening that the federal government may strip protections from these treasured animals to appease trophy hunters and the livestock industry,” Zaccardi said in a release. “After approving the all-out slaughter of wolves, Montana officials have proven they can’t be trusted to make science-based wildlife decisions. Our nation’s beloved grizzlies deserve better.”

The Service will decide whether the two populations qualify as “distinct population segments” and if so, they can be delisted separately from the other populations, including the Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk and Bitterroot, which have very few bears.

Under the Endangered Species Act, “distinct population segment” has a very specific definition because delisting populations on a piecemeal basis isn’t backed by science. To qualify, populations need to be separated from others and have different traits or genetic differences.

When the Service tried to delist the Yellowstone grizzlies in 2017, it declared the Yellowstone population to be a distinct population segment due to very slight genetic differences that developed due to the population’s isolation. The state of Wyoming quickly approved a hunting season allowing the killing of up to 22 grizzly bears. Idaho approved a quota of one bear and the Bullock administration in Montana held off on the first season.

However, in 2018, Missoula federal judge Dana Christensen disallowed the delisting, ruling that the Yellowstone population accounted for half the grizzly bears in the lower 48 states so removing it from protection could lead to losses that affect the survival of the species as a whole.

The judge ordered the Service to look at how that loss could affect other populations and to ensure that connectivity existed between populations to ensure gene flow.

The Service has yet to complete those tasks. Until it does, it can’t try to delist again, said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who argued the 2018 case.

“We feel pretty strongly that they can’t move forward without dealing with the issues that Judge Christensen identified and the Ninth Circuit affirmed that were flaws in their last attempt to delist the Yellowstone population,” Preso said.

The various legal challenges have also indicated that the Northern Continental Divide population is not a distinct population segment because it’s aligned genetically to the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk populations and all the smaller populations depend on the NCDE to increase their numbers. Based upon Montana’s proposed grizzly management plan, delisting could result in the deaths of many bears attempting to migrate between areas.

The state of Idaho filed a third petition requesting the delisting all grizzlies in the lower 48 states, but the Service said the petition provided no credible information to justify that.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service reached the right result on Idaho’s petition,” said Joe Bushyhead, WildEarth Guardians attorney in a release. “But we strongly oppose attempts to delist grizzly in Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems. Delisting these isolated populations of grizzlies will violate the terms of the ESA and hamstring efforts to recover bears elsewhere in the lower-48. The Service should not confuse the growth of just two bear populations with recovery.”

The Greater Yellowstone population is estimated at about 800 bears and the NCDE is estimated to have about 1,000 bears. The Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk each have only about 50 bears.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

More From Missoula Current