Management of grizzly bears in Montana’s northern Rocky Mountains should return to state control, according to Gov. Greg Gianforte.
“We’ve achieved the goals set for us,” Gianforte said on Monday when announcing the state would petition the federal government to remove Endangered Species Act protection from grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. “It’s time for the state to take over management.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees grizzly recovery. It has tried twice to delist grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which holds an estimated 1,069 bears in a 9,209-square-mile recovery area surrounding Yellowstone National Park in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Both the 2007 and 2017 attempts failed on court challenges.
An estimated 1,100 grizzly bears inhabit the 8,900-square-mile NCDE that extends from Glacier National Park to the southern fringe of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex along with the Flathead and Blackfeet Indian reservations. That’s the largest population among six grizzly recovery areas set up since the bear was given threatened status under the ESA in 1975. It lies entirely within Montana.
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In October, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon announced a similar grizzly delisting petition. Wyoming Game and Fish commissioners last week approved a proposed tri-state agreement pledging to work with Montana and Idaho wildlife departments to oversee Yellowstone-area grizzlies if federal protections are lifted. Montana and Idaho officials have not yet joined the agreement.
However, Gianforte’s announcement will likely become the center of attention at the winter Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting, which starts Tuesday. The Republican governor’s proposal did not make the formal agenda, but can be mentioned during the opening agency updates.
As a federally protected animal, grizzly bears may not be hunted in the Lower 48 states and can only be killed in self-defense or to protect livestock and other private property. Federal and state agencies must also consider the grizzly’s habitat needs and welfare when taking land-use actions such as timber sales, road-building, or recreational development.
“Due to the work and sacrifice of many Montanans over decades, Montana has been successful in recovering grizzly bears in the NCDE,” Gianforte said. “With the grizzly bear recovered, keeping the species listed under the Endangered Species Act will only continue to impact communities, farmers and ranchers, and recreationists around the state. It also limits Montana’s options when it comes to dealing with conflict bears.”
The Montana Legislature limited its own options last spring when it passed a law prohibiting state wildlife managers from transporting grizzly bears captured outside of federal recovery zones in conflict incidents such as livestock depredations. While the state wardens could still trap a suspect bear, a federal agent would have to deliver it to a relocation release site unless it was ordered killed at the investigation scene.
Part of the federal requirements to lift Endangered Species Act protections include evidence that states have the regulatory tools in place to keep grizzly populations from disintegrating. Last spring, a new five-year status review recommended keeping grizzlies under “threatened” status, in part because it could not affirm that state agencies were prepared to maintain those populations at recovered levels. FWS grizzly recovery coordinator Hilary Cooley told NCDE officials last week that the service had not yet settled on a plan for protecting or delisting the grizzly bear.
Gianforte’s announcement drew widely divergent responses on Monday afternoon. Montana Stockgrower’s Association Executive Vice President Jay Boder said he was pleased with the news.
“The Endangered Species Act is clearly designed to put an endangered species on the list, set a recovery population goal, and then delist,” Boder said. “The state has met all of those factors and this should be seen as a success story. Montana clearly has shown the state’s ability to manage grizzly bears in a way that reduces conflicts and maintains a viable population.”
Grizzly protection advocates countered that the states have failed to meet several legal steps needed to remove federal protections. Federal judges overturned the 2017 delisting rule in part because the FWS couldn’t show how removing protections from Greater Yellowstone grizzles might affect the other recovery area populations. Delisting the NCDE bears would face the same challenge.
"The courts have already ruled that there is only one population of grizzly bears,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Gov. Gianforte is ignoring the courts' rulings when he petitioned for the grizzly bears in the NCDE to be delisted."
WildEarth Guardians Executive Director John Horning called the announcement further evidence of “Montana’s hostility toward native carnivores.”
“The wolf slaughter that’s happening in Montana right now demonstrates how poorly equipped Montana decision-makers are to decide the fate of these majestic species, whether grizzlies or wolves,” Horning said. “Given Gov. Gianforte’s bloodlust for wolves, and now grizzlies, the federal government should deny this scientifically and legally illegitimate and ethically unfounded request to strip the endangered status of grizzles.”