Montana signs tri-state agreement to manage Yellowstone grizzly

Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) With Montana's approval of a tri-state agreement, the grizzly bear population in the greater Yellowstone area could move one step closer to delisting.

On Thursday, the Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously approved a memorandum of agreement between three states that will govern how to manage grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park if that subpopulation is delisted.

The state of Wyoming has requested that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delist the grizzly population in the greater Yellowstone area. Ken McDonald, FWP's wildlife director, said the Wyoming and Idaho wildlife commissions have already approved the memorandum.

“It limits the commission's discretion in future management to some extent. But it also demonstrates regulatory obligations, which is one of the variables the Fish and Wildlife Service considers when determining whether or not delisting is warranted,” McDonald said.

Under the agreement, which is based on the Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Conservation Strategy, the three states must work together to limit the grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone Demographic Control Area to 800 to 950 bears or more. The agreement does not cover bears outside the Demographic Control Area (DMA), which is about 20,000 square miles.

After the states establish an estimate of the grizzly population within the DMA, they will establish a growth rate. A growth rate of 1 essentially means no change, so if the estimated population is higher, say around 1,000 bears, the growth rate may be slightly lower, meaning more bears may die. The three states will monitor grizzly bear mortality.

After accounting for deaths from other causes, states can calculate the remaining number of bears that can be hunted. Each state is allotted a certain number of bears that can be hunted based on the land area within the DMA. About one-third of the DMA is in Montana, so FWP is allotted one-third of the huntable bears.

Montana has placed a moratorium on hunting for the first five years after delisting, while the other two states have not. However, if the population falls below 800 bears, hunting will cease and the states will conduct a biological and monitoring survey to make changes to prevent future declines.

“We need to make sure that the three states work together so that no one state undermines the others or does anything that hinders the fulfillment of these criteria,” McDonald said.

McDonald said the agreement also includes a requirement for genetic expansion, which is why FWP will begin capturing and transporting at least two female grizzly bears from the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem for release into the Yellowstone area.

During the public hearing, some people questioned the possibility of cooperation between three states with relatively different objectives.

Jeff Lukas, spokesman for the Montana Wildlife Federation, cites three problems with the agreement. First, it does not consider how bears that die outside the DMA affect the population within the DMA. If bears migrate, they could die, but their deaths would not be counted. Then there is the problematic way the bear population within the DMA is managed. And finally, the agreement does not promote the connectivity among Montana's grizzly populations that is needed for genetic health and long-term resilience.

“Managing the post-delisting grizzly bear population decline as described in the conservation strategy implementing this tri-state agreement is biologically unacceptable for the relatively small and isolated grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem,” Lukas said.

Endangered Species Coalition spokesman Derek Goldman said it was problematic that the agreement did not include a clause to protect grizzly bears outside the DMA, as Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have recently passed several regulations that more aggressively target carnivores such as wolves, lions and bears. Bear baiting and dog hunting, which were not allowed in Montana before 2021, pose a threat to grizzly bears.

For example, on June 10, a hunter in Idaho killed a grizzly bear that had visited his black bear bait site. The hunter suspected it might be a grizzly and sent photos to Idaho Fish and Game. Biologists misidentified the bear as a black bear and told the man he could shoot it.

“We believe all of this will lead to higher mortality rates for grizzly bears, particularly for bears outside the demographic surveillance area where anything can happen to bears,” Goldman said.

Goldman said Wyoming had already announced it was considering tripling the number of grizzly bears it had earmarked for hunting in 2017, after Yellowstone grizzlies were delisted for the first time. While Montana had no grizzly bear hunt planned and Idaho would allow the shooting of one grizzly, Wyoming had planned to kill one female and up to nine males within the DMA and another dozen in the rest of the state. This was based on a mortality rate of 20 dead females, but more dead bears were later found, prompting animal rights activists to challenge the hunting quotas.

Representatives of the Ravalli County-based Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and a new group, the Montana Conservation Society, supported the agreement.

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