Los Angeles Times

U.S. may ease protection­s for grizzly bears

Biden administra­tion action could lead to hunting of the animals in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

- By Matthew Brown

BILLINGS, Mont. — The Biden administra­tion has taken a first step toward ending federal protection­s for grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains, which would open the door to 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 raised concerns about new laws from the Republican­led states that could harm grizzly population­s.

“We will fully evaluate these and other potential threats,” said Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Friday’s move kicks off at least a year of study before final decisions are made 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 that future hunts would be limited and would not endanger the overall grizzly 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 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 the state. Idaho issued only 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 in the last century by over-hunting 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,

including periodic bear attacks on livestock and the fatal mauling of humans.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte welcomed the Biden administra­tion’s announceme­nt and said it could lead to the state reclaiming management of a species that was 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, under former President Trump, sought to remove protection­s for the Yellowston­e ecosystem’s grizzlies. 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 to move into new areas.

“We should not be ready to trust the states,” said attorney Andrea Zaccardi of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Dave Evans, a hunting guide with Wood River Ranch in Meeteetse, Wyo., said 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 humancause­d bear deaths and other pressures. Bears considered to be problemati­c are regularly killed by wildlife officials.

Demand for hunting licenses would probably be high if the protection­s were 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 one filed by Montana and sought to lift protection­s nationwide. That would have included small population­s of bears in Idaho, Montana and Washington state, where the animals have not yet recovered to sustainabl­e levels, biologists say. It also could have prevented the return of bears to the North Cascades and other areas.

In an emailed statement, Little said the decision was “seven months late.” Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to issue a finding within 90 days, to the extent that is practical. That deadline arrived last June, the governor’s office said.

“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 wrote. He said he would “continue to push back against the federal government.”

Grizzly bear encounters are rare in northern Idaho, though wildlife managers occasional­ly warn people to be on the watch. In 2021, Idaho Fish and Game officials estimated that there were 40 to 50 grizzly bears in the northernmo­st part of the state.

 ?? Jim Urquhart Associated Press ?? GRIZZLY BEARS in areas around Yellowston­e and Glacier national parks have recovered from the threat of extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.
Jim Urquhart Associated Press GRIZZLY BEARS in areas around Yellowston­e and Glacier national parks have recovered from the threat of extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.

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