The Biden administration took a first step Friday toward ending federal protections for grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains, which would open the door to future hunting in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said state officials provided “substantial” information that grizzlies have recovered from the threat of extinction in the regions surrounding Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
But federal officials rejected claims by Idaho that protections should be lifted beyond those areas, and they raised concerns about new laws from the Republican-led states that could potentially harm grizzly populations.
“We will fully evaluate these and other potential threats,” said Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
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Williams told the head of Montana’s wildlife agency in a Wednesday letter that a law allowing grizzlies to be killed if they attack livestock was inconsistent with the state's commitment to bear conservation. She said the 2023 legislative session offered a “good opportunity” to address such problems.
Friday’s move kicks off at least a year of further study before final decisions about the Yellowstone and Glacier regions.
The states want protections lifted so they can regain management of grizzlies and offer hunts to the public. As grizzly populations have expanded, more of the animals have moved into areas occupied by people, creating public safety issues and problems for farmers.
State officials have insisted future hunts would be limited and not endanger the overall population.
After grizzlies temporarily lost their protections in the Yellowstone region several years ago, Wyoming and Idaho scheduled hunts that would have allowed fewer than two dozen bears to be killed in the initial hunting season.
In Wyoming, almost 1,500 people applied for 12 grizzly bear licenses in 2018 before the hunt was blocked in federal court. About a third of the applicants came from out of state. Idaho issued just one grizzly license before the hunt was blocked.
Republican lawmakers in the region in recent years also adopted more aggressive policies against gray wolves, including loosened trapping rules that could lead to grizzlies being inadvertently killed.
As many as 50,000 grizzlies once roamed the western half of the U.S. They were exterminated in most of the country early last century by overhunting and trapping, and the last hunts in the northern Rockies occurred decades ago. There are now more than 2,000 bears in the Lower 48 states and much larger populations in Alaska, where hunting is allowed.
The species' expansion in the Glacier and Yellowstone areas has led to conflicts between humans and bears, including periodic attacks on livestock and sometimes the fatal mauling of humans.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte welcomed the administration’s announcement and said it could lead to the state reclaiming management of a species placed under federal protection in 1975. He said the grizzly’s recovery “represents a conservation success.”
Montana held grizzly hunts until 1991 under an exemption to the federal protections that allowed 14 bears to be killed each fall.
The federal government in 2017 sought to remove protections for the Yellowstone ecosystem’s grizzlies under former President Donald Trump. The hunts in Wyoming and Idaho were set to begin when a judge restored protections, siding with environmental groups that said delisting wasn’t based on sound science.
Those groups want federal protections kept in place and no hunting allowed so bears can continue moving into new areas.
“We should not be ready to trust the states,” said attorney Andrea Zaccardi, of the Center for Biological Diversity. Derek Goldman with the Endangered Species Coalition said state management would be a disaster and was glad federal agencies were looking at the states' laws.
Dave Evans, a hunting guide with Wood River Ranch in Meeteetse, Wyoming, said the issue is complex, and he can understand why people fall on both sides of the debate.
“You have so many opinions and some of them are not based on science, but the biologists are the ones that know the facts about what the populations are and what should be considered a goal for each area,” Evans said. “If you're going to manage grizzly bears, there's a sustainable number that needs to be kept in balance. I'm not a biologist, but I would follow the science.”
U.S. government scientists have said the region’s grizzlies are biologically recovered but in 2021 decided that protections were still needed because of human-caused bear deaths and other pressures. Bears considered problematic are regularly killed by wildlife officials.
Demand for bear hunting licenses would likely be high if the protections are lifted, Evans said.
“You would definitely have a higher demand, and it would probably be very expensive,” Evans said. “A guided bear hunt in Alaska can start around $20,000, so I would imagine it would be very sought after.”
A decision on the states’ petitions was long overdue. Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Thursday filed notice that he intended to sue over the delay. Idaho's petition was broader than the ones filed by Montana and sought to lift protections nationwide.
That would have included small populations of bears in portions of Idaho, Montana and Washington state, where biologists say the animals have not yet recovered to sustainable levels. It also could have prevented the return of bears to other areas such as the North Cascades region.
"While we continue to evaluate the decision from USFWS, this is another example of federal overreach and appears to have a disproportionate impact on North Idaho,” Little said in an emailed statement. He said his office would "continue to push back against the federal government.”
Grizzly bear encounters are generally rare in northern Idaho, though wildlife managers occasionally warn people to be on the watch for the animals. In 2021, Idaho Fish and Game officials estimated there were between 40 and 50 grizzly bears in the northernmost part of the state.