HELENA — Montana leaders have been petitioning the federal government to consider removing grizzly bears from the list of endangered and threatened wildlife and giving the state the opportunity to manage the species. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says there’s enough evidence to start a 12-month review of whether to delist grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. State lawmakers are looking at bills that would set the state’s direction if delisting moves forward.
Sen. Bruce Gillespie, R-Ethridge, is a rancher in north-central Montana. He says a number of landowners in his area have had run-ins with grizzlies.
“We're doing an awful good job in the last 48 years of growing the numbers dramatically on grizzly bear population,” he said. “That means with more population, you're going to have more encounters, close calls.”
Gillespie believes this is the right time for the federal government to consider delisting.
“The bear population is doing well,” he said. “Now we just have to try to get a little more safety, a little more control, get it back to Montana management – because somebody in New York, Washington, D.C. cannot even have an inkling of what happens here on the home front.”
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, is a former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional supervisor for southwestern Montana. In that role, he was closely involved with previous discussions about delisting in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. He says the federal action is appropriate.
“There are criteria in the recovery plan, and we've met those criteria for recovery,” said Flowers. “When you meet those criteria, we should then take the next step towards proposed delisting – and I think that's the next step that the service is taking now.”
Flowers acknowledged there is a difference of opinion in the Democratic caucus, as other members aren’t convinced it’s the right time to proceed with delisting.
Last week, the Montana Senate approved Senate Bill 85, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta. It would declare the “policy of the state” after delisting is to “manage grizzly bear populations at levels to maintain their delisted status.” It passed 37-12, with Flowers and two other Democrats joining all Republicans in support.
Gillespie says he plans to introduce another bill early next week. It would ask the state to create rules after delisting that would allow a landowner to kill a grizzly that is actively attacking or killing livestock, but would require them to coordinate with FWP on how to respond if a bear is simply threatening livestock.
“My bill goes much more in depth about how management will look,” Gillespie said. “We're trying to give some assurance to the people back in D.C. pulling the strings that, yes, we do know how to take care of them, we do know how to manage them. The worst thing in the world would be to see the population go downhill, even from a rancher’s perspective.”
Flowers says he opposed a law Gillespie successfully sponsored last legislative session, which said a person could kill a bear without being charged with a crime under Montana law if it was threatening to kill a person or livestock. He believes the new bills are steps toward “adequate regulatory language” for the period after delisting.
“I think that the ranchers on the front, conservationists, sportsmen, all recognize the need for and the value of a healthy bear population,” Flowers said. “And I think that's one of the values in my mind of having it delisted, and a state-managed species – I think we then all get more invested in that population, just like we are in our deer and elk and even other predator populations.”