HELENA - Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) leaders have unveiled a new draft plan for managing grizzly bears, and they’re asking the public for their thoughts.
FWP says that as grizzlies expand their presence across the state, it’s important to have an updated plan to guide management while the species remains listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act — and to lay out a future policy if they are eventually delisted.
The draft plan calls grizzly bears a species that is “conservation-reliant” — meaning it will always require intensive management – and “conflict-prone.”
“FWP envisions a future in which grizzly bears will continue to be an important symbol of the State of Montana and part of its cultural heritage,” the plan states. “The overwhelming success of grizzly bear recovery, to date, speaks to its importance and central role in the culture of Montana. FWP would continue to ensure their long-term presence in Montana, recognizing that they are among the most difficult species to have in our midst.”
Until now, the state has had two separate plans — one for Western Montana and one for Southwest Montana. However, leaders say grizzlies now occupy many areas outside the original recovery zones, so it’s time for a statewide policy.
The new draft plan doesn’t set a statewide population goal for grizzlies, but it does discuss objectives in each of four specific recovery areas.
In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, FWP committed to the goal of maintaining about 932 bears, while in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, they would manage with the goal of a 90% probability that the area has at least 800 grizzlies.
Leaders said they believed the existing populations in those areas are meeting their recovery targets, and they called for delisting in those areas.
FWP said they supported federal efforts to reach recovery goals in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem of far northwestern Montana and to reestablish a population in the Bitterroot Ecosystem in Idaho and parts of Montana.
The plan also says FWP would manage for “connectivity” between these populations, through bears traveling and sometimes through relocation.
In areas that don’t have that connectivity — especially east of the identified habitats — leaders said they’d be more likely to recommend controls on bears when conflicts occur. They said working with private landowners in these transitional areas will be key.
FWP also said, if grizzlies are delisted, they would be prepared to consider a “small in scope” hunting season, at the discretion of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission — though they acknowledged not all Montanans would be supportive of the plan.
Leaders said any hunting would be conducted in line with their commitment to “maintaining thriving grizzly bear populations within their core areas.”
FWP is set to answer questions about the draft plan during a statewide webinar on Dec. 15. They are also accepting public comments on the plan and its accompanying environmental impact statement through Jan. 5.