MISSOULA — While conservation groups renew calls for grizzly protection in the Northern Rockies, Montana's two US Senators are keeping a close watch on the developing debate. And while they have differing views on "de-listing" the big bears, they agree science is key.
The grizzly protection debate appears to have entered new territory, following recent actions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to keep the bears designated as a "threatened species" and lawmakers in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming adopting positions that bear populations are recovered, and de-listing should follow.
Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) has been more vocal on the bear front too.
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“I’ve run into several grizzly bears myself just last spring when I was out to black bear hunting. They're an amazing animal," Daines told me during a recent phone interview. "But they are now well above their recovery targets. And there's just a frustration."
"So many Montanans are wondering why can't we, as Montanans manage the grizzly bear and turn that responsibility to us just like we do with wolves. Because the science is compelling," Sen. Daines continued. "The grizzly bear numbers are well above recovery targets. This is a safety issue. It's also an economic issue with the livestock industry.”
But from the Yaak to Yellowstone, conservation and wildlife groups are arguing more bears are needed, not less, to ensure complete recovery.
Sen. Daines has spent his trips in Montana through the winter and spring meeting with ranchers and hearing concerns about an increasing number of bears, livestock kills and wandering far out from the "spine" of the Rockies into the plains. He believes grizzlies are back, and management should fall to the states.
"So the number of human-bear conflicts will continue to increase. The predation losses in livestock will continue to increase and because of grizzly bears," Sen. Daines predicts. "Let's look at the quantitative evidence. They’ve set very clear recovery targets. The grizzly bear is now well above those targets, just like we had happened with the wolves.”
Wolves raise an interesting point for Daines' seatmate, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), who led the way for de-listing wolves over a decade ago. During a recent stop in Missoula, we asked him what he thinks should happen with grizzlies.
"If they're recovered and the science shows it, we ought to de-list. And if they're recovered in the Yellowstone ecosystem and the science shows that then de-list them. Manage them as they need to be managed," Sen. Tester observed.
"If they're not recovered then no. And if we use the wrong management tools that puts these animals back on the Endangered Species List then shame on us. So what I'm saying is let science guide our decisions here," he continued.
While we haven't seen the bear debate in court recently, don't be surprised if that's where it's headed -- especially with the state-level moves of late. Sen. Daines told MTN News me he trusts the states to do the right thing.
“So this is gonna be something coming from not only just Montana but also Wyoming and Idaho. As we are working together as Western States. And Governor Gianforte's been a great partner on this and this is going to take a push from all of us," Sen. Daines concluded.