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Grappling with grizzlies ‘if and when’

September 26, 2018

Grizzly bears regularly make news in Montana and the powerful bruin’s circumstances grabbed headlines again this week.

On Monday, a federal judge restored Endangered Species Act status for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population of grizzly bears. In 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had listed grizzly bears in the Lower 48 as a threatened species. In June 2017, the service dropped the Greater Yellowstone population from its list of threatened species. The service had said it considered this population to be recovered.

On Thursday, the grizzly-bear spotlight shifts to Kalispell.

That’s when the state Fish and Wildlife Commission will hold a public hearing to solicit input about an administrative rule that would guide management approaches for grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem if and when this population loses federal protection.

The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at Flathead Valley Community College’s Arts and Technology building.

“I really want to emphasize that Thursday’s meeting is not about whether grizzly bears should be delisted,” said Dillon Tabish, a spokesman for both the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.

The hearing also isn’t intended to solicit comment about whether the bears should be hunted, he said.

Instead, the focus will be managing a delisted grizzly population in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, a region that includes Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, portions of the Flathead and Blackfeet Indian reservations, parts of five national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, and state and private lands.

In August, Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams said the department is committed to keeping a viable, healthy population of grizzly bears in this ecosystem.

Williams described the administrative rule as “an important step toward federal delisting of the bears, as well as an important piece for the future of grizzly-bear conservation and management in Montana.”

One estimate suggests the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem provides habitat for about 1,000 grizzly bears, an animal many Montanans embrace as a living symbol of wild country.

But other residents, including some who raise concerns about livestock predation by the bears and some who decry occasional attacks on humans, object to federal and state protections for grizzlies.

The strategy for maintaining a recovered grizzly population in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem would include demographic targets that would seek to maintain a grizzly-bear population of more than 800 bears and targets for maintaining a quantity of female bears with offspring.

Separately, estimates suggest there are about 700 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Wildlife advocates have expressed concerns that these bears and the population of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem are isolated and at risk of declining genetic diversity.

U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen’s ruling Monday that the Fish and Wildlife Service erred in June 2017 by removing federal protections for the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population made a reference to these concerns.

Christensen observed that two studies cited by the wildlife service concluded that “the long-term health of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly depends on the introduction of new genetic material.”

The judge noted there is no known connectivity between the grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said isolated populations of grizzly bears “end up being inbred and inbred populations of any species don’t survive over the long run.”

He added, “Montana FWP and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service need to work on connecting and recovering the different populations of grizzly bears rather than delisting them.”

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at 758-4407 or dadams@dailyinterlake.com.

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