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Montana approves grizzly agreement with Idaho and Wyoming
Montana approves grizzly agreement with Idaho and Wyoming

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission has unanimously approved a three-state agreement that will govern the cooperative management of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem if or when they are no longer protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The Tri-State Memorandum of Agreement requires Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to maintain the Yellowstone region’s grizzly bear population at 800 to 950 animals after it is delisted, Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission Chairman Ken McDonald told the commission at its meeting Thursday. Wyoming and Idaho have already signed the agreement.

Hunters told the commission that the growth of Yellowstone’s grizzly population was a success to be celebrated, praised the MOA and said the bears should be delisted. Conservationists argued that grizzlies still face numerous challenges due to habitat fragmentation, loss of traditional food sources and lack of genetic connection to other grizzly populations.

Coming soon

In February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would conduct a 12-month review of grizzly populations in the Yellowstone area and northern Montana to determine whether they had recovered sufficiently to warrant delisting.

“This includes an evaluation of the regulatory mechanisms recently introduced in Montana and Idaho,” the agency noted.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has adopted a grizzly bear management plan. In the last legislative session, lawmakers also passed a law requiring FWP to establish mortality thresholds for grizzly bears and set an annual mortality quota.

When bear management is returned to the three states, Montana has committed to not having a hunting season for the first five years.

Mortality calculations

Under the tri-state agreement approved by the Commission, the number of grizzly bears available to hunters in each state is determined by a formula.

Depending on whether the states agree to manage population growth or reduce it, different calculations would be used, McDonald explained.

As an example, he used the 2022 population estimate of 965 bears in the Yellowstone region, which is specifically defined as a demographic monitoring area. In 2022, there were 328 independent females, 332 independent males, and 305 independent cubs. Independent means the bears are no longer with their mother.

To achieve a stable population in this scenario, the death of up to 41 males and 31 females from all causes of death would meet the stable population goal. However, bears killed outside the monitoring area would not be included in this equation.

The total mortality rate of the previous year is then used to adjust the figures.

McDonald used a 10-year average of 20 males killed and 17 females killed for his example. These numbers are then subtracted from the targets to determine the number of bears available to hunters. In this case, that would be 21 males and 14 females that hunters could kill to maintain a stable population.

These numbers are then divided among the three states based on how much grizzly habitat they have in the control area. Wyoming has the lion’s share at 58%, Montana 34%, and Idaho 8%. So in this scenario, hunters in Montana would be allowed seven male and five female grizzly tags.

Translocation

“Another component of the MOA is the commitment to genetic expansion,” McDonald added. “One of the things the federal courts have ruled was that we need genetic expansion. So the three states in this MOA are agreeing to move some bears from the Northern Continental Divide to the GYE, and that process is hopefully underway right now.”

McDonald’s announcement regarding the relocation of grizzly bears from northern Montana to the Yellowstone region came just days after an environmental group notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it would sue if action was not taken to stop the grizzly bear relocations.

The Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force has written to the agency informing them that the relocation plan violates the Endangered Species Act’s prohibitions on “taking,” which include capturing and trapping animals.

Grizzly bears were protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, when an estimated 136 bears inhabited the Yellowstone region. Since then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has twice tried to return management to the states. Both times, the agency lost court cases brought by environmental groups challenging the decision.

By Everly