HELENA – Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission took the next step Thursday toward setting management priorities for the grizzly bear population in the Northern Continental Divide area.
Wildlife managers are working to be ready to take over managing the bears if the federal government decides to remove them from the list of threatened species. Leaders with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said that process could begin as soon as this November or December.
“Good state management gives Montanans the most flexibility when it comes to how we manage these species,” said Dan Vermillion, the commission’s chair.
Commissioners voted to put forward population objectives as a proposed state rule. The objectives call for maintaining an active, healthy grizzly bear population throughout the Demographic Monitoring Area, a 16,000 square-mile region that includes Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and large parts of the Rocky Mountain Front.
Biologists believe there are currently more than 1,000 grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide area.
The population objectives were created as part of the multi-agency Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem Conservation Strategy. Putting them through the rulemaking process ensured that the public would have a chance to weigh in on the plan.
Fish and wildlife leaders say a draft version of the conservation strategy was produced and released for public comment in 2013, but revised in 2017 in response to updated science and public comments.
The updated objectives call for the state to manage the bears so there is a 90 percent chance that there are at least 800 in the Demographic Monitoring Area. Fish and wildlife said that would effectively mean managing for a population of about 1,000 grizzlies.
“When you manage for a population estimate, you know there’s always uncertainty around that,” said Cecily Costello, FWP’s research biologist for grizzly bears. “In this way, we’re taking into account the uncertainty as part of the process.”
The objectives also encourage “connectivity,” or interaction between bears in the area under consideration and those in other habitats, like the Greater Yellowstone and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems.
Costello said, currently, grizzly survival rates in the Northern Continental Divide Area are high enough that the state could meet the 90 percent threshold. However, she also noted that this year has seen the highest number of bears killed in collisions with vehicles.
Some members of the public questioned whether the proposed population of 800 bears was the appropriate goal. Glenn Horrock, volunteer president of the Gallatin Wilderness Association, pointed to a study that he said suggested a population of several hundred wasn’t enough to maintain stability.
“You’re building on a good scientific foundation, but I think this paper will help,” he said.
But Butch Gillespie, with the Marias River Livestock Association, raised concerns about the growing number of conflicts between bears and landowners, especially on the eastern edge of the grizzly’s range.
“As they increase up there, it’s just going to push more and more of them into the eastern part of Montana,” he said.
Despite their differences, most of the commenters thanked the commission for moving forward with the management proposal, and for giving people a chance to be heard.
“I think Montanans should be proud of this,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. “We did this together. Look at where we are with grizzly bears and where we were when they went on the list.”
Bill Schenk, an FWP attorney, said the agency will open 60 days of public comment on the proposed population objectives, starting Aug. 24. He said they are planning to hold public meetings in September or October, in Great Falls, Missoula, Kalispell and most likely in either Choteau or Shelby.