MISSOULA - While state and federal biologists express confidence about the progress of bringing grizzly bears back from the brink of extinction, environmental and conservation groups say it's too soon to remove "threatened species" protection.
That message was delivered again on Monday as members of the Executive Committee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee gathered in Missoula for their annual winter meetings.
The theme remains positive about the various bear populations in the Northwest, from the Yellowstone bears in Montana and Wyoming, to the grizzlies now beginning to wander out of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness into the Northern Montana plains.
Biologists say bear populations aren't necessarily booming, but they are continuing to increase in most areas, with de-listing bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) on the horizon.
However, conservation groups continue to sound a message of "not so fast". They urged the committee to use take more time, and use caution to precisely follow federal law.
"And resist the temptation to de-list and start grizzly bear hunting before we have grizzlies fully occupying all of these great big habitat areas we have in the Northern Rockies," said Wilderness Watch Executive Director George Nickas.
"If you move forward with rushing the NCDE de-listing, you will fundamentally undermine all of the progress that you've made toward recovering these other populations," added WildEarth Guardians Program Director Bethany Cotton.
"And it's an absolute tragedy that we're here focusing on de-listing Glacier's bears and removing those protections and we have the Northern Cascades effort being totally undermined," she continued.
The agencies have emphasized that any specific action to remove protection for the northern grizzlies still has to be developed.