Bears to fend for themselves

Matthew Brown

BILLINGS, MONTANA (AP) — Montana is asking the United States (US) Fish and Wildlife Service to lift threatened species protections for grizzly bears in the northern portion of the state, including areas in and around Glacier National Park, officials said on Monday.

The request, if granted, would open the door to public hunting of grizzlies in Montana for the first time in three decades. It comes after bear populations have expanded, spurring more run-ins including grizzly attacks on livestock and periodic maulings of people.

Removing federal protections would give state wildlife officials more flexibility to deal with bears that get into conflicts, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte said. But wildlife advocates warned of overhunting if protections are lifted.

Northwest Montana has the largest concentration of grizzlies in the Lower 48 states, with more than 1,000 bears across Glacier National Park and nearby expanses of forested wilderness, an area known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

In March, US government scientists said the region’s grizzlies are biologically recovered, but need continued protection under the Endangered Species Act because of human-caused bear deaths and other pressures.

A grizzly bear walks through a back country campsite in Montana’s Glacier National Park. PHOTO: AP

Hunting of grizzlies is banned in the US outside Alaska. Bears considered problematic are regularly killed by wildlife officials.

“We’ve shown the ability to manage bears, protect their habitat and population numbers,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Hank Worsech said in a statement.

“It’s time for us to have full authority for grizzly bears in Montana.”

But wildlife advocates cautioned against giving the state control over grizzlies, after Republicans including Gianforte have advanced policies that make it much easier to kill another controversial predator, the grey wolf.

“We don’t believe that there should be hunting of these iconic, native carnivores,” said environmentalist John Horning with the group WildEarth Guardians. “I have no doubt the state would push it to the absolute limit so they could kill as many grizzlies as possible.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service had not received the state’s request and had no immediate comment, spokesperson Joe Szuszwalak said.