As grizzly bears begin to emerge from winter dens in southwestern Montana, state wildlife officials say a recently updated conservation plan shows Montana is well prepared to take over management of the federally threatened species.
The plan, presented to the Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission in February, was developed over the past year in conjunction with a programmatic environmental impact statement. The update addresses state management options once the Greater Yellowstone Area's more than 700 grizzly bears are removed from the federal list of threatened species.
"Over the past four decades, Montanans have worked hand in hand with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks' bear experts to reduce conflicts with grizzly bears," said Jeff Hagener, director of FWP in Helena. "Communities have deployed bear-resistant garbage bins; landowners have erected electric fence systems to deter bear depredations; and hikers, campers, hunters, anglers and outfitters have followed through on conflict-prevention tips gleaned from hundreds of educational programs."
The result, Hagener said, is a healthy and growing grizzly bear population ready for state management.
That's where the new grizzly bear conservation and management plan comes in.
"The plan calls for Montana to stay the course," Hagener said. "Status quo management of grizzlies in southwestern Montana allows FWP to continue its work to prevent human-grizzly and livestock-grizzly conflicts before they occur."
Hagener noted that preventative actions can include public outreach efforts to ensure recreationists are familiar with smart hiking and camping practices in grizzly country in addition to livestock conflict preventative work, like electric fencing of apiaries or overnight sheep pens.
"FWP also remains committed to conflict management that can include lethal removal of problem grizzlies," Hagener said.
The plan applies to a seven-county area of southwestern Montana, including Carbon, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Park, Gallatin, Madison, and Beaverhead counties.
Hagener stressed that FWP will not relocate grizzlies within the area to expand the current distribution. "Grizzlies will move into areas on their own and we hope they move into suitable habitats," he said. "FWP will, however, capture, relocate or remove grizzlies that get into trouble."
Among the issues considered in the plan are population monitoring, habitat management, nuisance grizzly bear management, future distribution and the potential for grizzly bear hunting.
While the plan anticipates the removal of the Yellowstone area's growing grizzly bear population from the federal list of threatened species, successful delisting requires that the bears be able to disperse naturally into areas where adequate habitat exists.
Upon delisting, grizzly bears will be considered game animals in Montana and could be hunted at some point. Details of any hunting opportunity would be developed through standard Fish & Wildlife Commission processes.
Under a previously approved federal conservation strategy signed by Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and federal land management agencies within the Greater Yellowstone Area, the grizzly bear population will be counted annually within the core habitat area around Yellowstone National Park.
The plan is available online at fwp.mt.gov. Click "SW MT Grizzly Bear Management Plan."
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 27, 2014
This news release published March 21, 2014 mistakenly stated that more than 700 grizzly bears lived in southwestern Montana. That figure refers to grizzly bears inhabiting the entire tri-state Greater Yellowstone Area. Additionally, the news release stated the Fish & Wildlife Commission approved the plan in February. The completed plan was presented to the commission at the time but no approval action was necessary.