MISSOULA — Montana's request to remove federal protections for grizzly bears along the Northern Continental Divide is getting some attention this week, as managers from agencies all across the region gather for their annual winter meeting.
Gov. Greg Gianforte has been bristling over continued Endangered Species Protection for grizzlies since he was in Congress. And Monday he took action, petitioning the federal government to declare the bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) as a distinct species, and "de-list" the bears, turning management over to the state.
That move won't happen overnight, especially given the matrix of agencies that manage grizzlies. But it's certainly grabbing attention during the virtual meetings of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), which started Tuesday.
While he didn't add much to the Governor's declaration, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Wildlife Division head Ken McDonald told his colleagues the FWP Fish and Wildlife Commission will be considering a revised "Tri-State" agreement with Idaho and Wyoming for state management of bears, including hunting.
"That MOA basically describes how the three states will manage mortality and particularly discretionary mortality should bears get de-listed. So we're going to be asking our commission to approve that next week."
At the same time, McDonald says Montana is also taking steps to clarify the rules of how many bears may be taken before hunting is shut down on the NCDE, matching the standards in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. And he told the committee FWP is moving to hire more field staff to manage grizzlies.
"Recognizing that bears are expanding in all directions, including in the Bitterroot. And so, for once we're trying to get ahead of the bears. And so a person in the Bitterroot will be focused initially on a lot of outreach and bear prevention work. So hopefully when the bears do get there we won't be in the middle of conflicts and starting from scratch." - FWP Wildlife Division head Ken McDonald
With bear populations continuing to rise across the region, preventing conflict with better education programs is another big theme in these meetings.
"And some of that is the bear-resistant containers, information, education, outreach. And the possibility, one of the things we're looking at, is launching a near 'bear smart' community program. And what that may look like," said IGBC Chair Jacqueline Buchanan at the start of Tuesday's meeting. "And to get some feedback from all of you of what the value of that might be and how it could to help us avoid the loss of human life. And every one of us is committed to that."
The meeting continues online Wednesday and Thursday.