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Grizzly bear

In this 2013 file photo, a grizzly bear cub rests near a cabin a few miles from the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner.

When Yogi Berra quipped “it’s déjà vu all over again,” he must have been talking to Yogi Bear.

Consider the Missoulian story about a federal judge putting a grizzly bear trophy hunt on hold just days before a state was to start its season. Not U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen blocking Wyoming’s 2018 grizzly hunt last month. Try U.S. District Court Judge Michael Boudin’s order blocking Montana’s grizzly hunt three days before its scheduled opening in 1991.

Boudin ruled Montana’s spring and fall grizzly seasons had to stop because the state couldn’t prove it had a surplus of bears to hunt. Grizzlies received Endangered Species Act protection in 1975, yet Montana’s wildlife agency was allowed to continue a limited trophy hunt of up to nine bears a year in a 9,600-square-mile part of northwest Montana.

That bit of history brings up another issue as grizzlies in that same area move toward recovery from ESA protection, possibly by the end of this year. Montana still has a policy declaring sport hunting the best way to control grizzly populations and prevent attacks on livestock and people. 

This month, state wildlife managers are wrapping up public review of a proposed Administrative Rule of Montana controlling how the agency will monitor grizzly populations in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. If those bears get delisted and the state takes over management, the rule would commit the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department to maintain at least 800 grizzlies in the Rocky Mountains between Glacier National Park and Interstate 90.

During that review, several advocates for continued federal protection of grizzlies dug up another bit of history. FWP’s current administrative rule book states, “Sport hunting is considered the most desirable method of balancing grizzly bear numbers with their available habitat, minimizing depredations against private property within or adjacent to grizzly bear habitat, and minimizing grizzly bear attacks on humans.” (ARM 12.9.103)

The rule dates from 1977, when the Lower 48 states had an estimated 500 grizzlies. By the time of Boudin’s hunt cancellation, northwest Montana had somewhere between 459 and 813 grizzlies, including about 200 in Glacier National Park. Missoulian archives noted that big-game hunters had legally killed 16 grizzlies in that region between 1986 and 1991.

In their protest letter to FWP, the opponents called the 1977 rule a “slight of hand” that should have been included in public presentations about monitoring methods. They question whether grizzly bears should be hunted at all, if and when they return to state control.

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“FWP is attempting to turn back the clock to a different era when time, new science and facts have moved progressively forward,” the letter stated. It was signed by leaders of Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Rattlesnake, Friends of the Bitterroot, WildWest Institute, Western Watersheds Project, and the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force.

FWP spokesman Greg Lemon acknowledged the rule remains in effect, but added that a restored Montana grizzly hunting season is far from certain.

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“Our focus isn’t to get grizzlies delisted so we can hunt them,” Lemon said. “Our focus is managing grizzly bears, and hunting is a tool in that management. But hunting is not the end-game here.”

Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees the FWP, opted not to authorize a hunting season for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem when those bears lost federal ESA protection in 2017. It has made no decision whether to hunt grizzlies in the NCDE.

Wyoming and Idaho wildlife managers each scheduled grizzly hunts to start this September. Judge Christensen blocked those hunts with a temporary restraining order on Aug. 30, and restored the Yellowstone-area grizzlies to federal management with a full court order on Sept. 24.

Christensen’s ruling will likely be challenged before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. However that plays out, the U.S. Department of the Interior has stated it intends to delist Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzlies by the end of 2018. Federal officials have not commented on whether that schedule has been revised in light of the Yellowstone delisting failure.

Lemon said anyone wishing to reconsider the grizzly sport hunting administrative rule can petition the Fish and Wildlife Commission. The commissioners would study the request and either issue a written denial within 60 days or start a new rule-making process with public comment.

Meanwhile, the grizzly monitoring administrative rule public comment period ends Oct. 26, and the Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider the results at its Dec. 7 meeting. 

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