The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken the first step toward removing Northwest Montana’s grizzly bears from the “threatened” species list.
On Wednesday, the agency issued a notice of proposed rule-making, stating that it would soon propose delisting the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem’s grizzlies.
This group constitutes one of six grizzly bear “distinct population segments” across the West, and consists of most of Northwest Montana, from Missoula to the Canadian border. Delisting would eventually turn these bears, estimated in 2014 to number at 960 , over to state management after a lengthy review and monitoring process.
The Yellowstone National Park area’s population segment was delisted in September 2017, and the Northern Continental Divide grizzlies were widely expected to be next. Hilary Cooley, bear recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, noted impressive growth in the Northern Continental Divide bears’ distribution since they were listed in 1975.
But many conservationists see trouble ahead for the species. “When they move forward and delist isolated populations, it makes it harder for grizzly bears to recover as a whole and connect with other populations,” argued Andrea Santarsiere, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. State management, she continued, also “puts a target on their back for potential hunting seasons in the future.” Both Wyoming and Idaho have made plans for grizzly hunts around Yellowstone.
The Center for Biological Diversity, together with the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, filed one of six lawsuits challenging the Yellowstone delisting. Those cases are now being consolidated for an August hearing.
On the Northern Continental Divide delisting, Santarsiere said the Center was “disappointed, but not surprised” by Fish and Wildlife’s decision. “I think we’ll obviously be submitting comments on the proposed rule and analyzing it pretty closely, and then when the final rule comes out we will have to review it and then determine if we would challenge that in court.”
She said her group has certain requests it would like the service to meet in a delisting. One of these would be a moratorium on hunting for the first few years under state management.
The proposed rule will be published in September, at which point it will be open for public comment.
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 758-4407.