BILLINGS — Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it’s starting a 12-month period in which grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem could be removed from the federal endangered species list.
The decision has many divided in Montana, where bear sightings have increased. Some say this points to the success of bear-management programs, but others note it poses a new problem for the state.
"Bears, of course, are apex predators, but they’re also keystone species, which means hundreds if not thousands of other animals rely on them. In many ways, shapes and forms," said Jeff Ewelt, executive director of ZooMontana on Tuesday.
Ewelt said while the rebounding grizzly population that now sits at around 1,100 is encouraging, there’s still work to be done.
"The problem is, it’s easy to point to this number and say look there’s success here, stop the program so we can get them off the endangered species list to open up the hunt and essentially decimate the population once again... We need to pad that number. That number's a great number, don’t get me wrong, but we need it to be higher so we can account for the expected loss in terms of habitat loss and in terms of hunting losses that we’re going to see. Let’s pad it, get that number to a comfortable point so this 1,100 is kind of the baseline where we can start," added Ewelt.
But there are plenty of Montanans who support delisting. Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guide Association, is one of them.
He mentioned the successful management programs are why bears should be delisted down the road and that the state's control over grizzly population simply makes the most sense.
"Once the bears have reached a threshold, like wolves, where our management system can be employed, we’re going to be in better footing than we will if we leave it to the federal government," said Minard.
And while Minard is a vocal proponent of hunting, he says that’s not the driving force for his organization's support of delisting.
"Our motivation isn’t about quickly establishing a hunting season. There’s no pressure for that. There’s only pressure for that if it's biologically sustainable... As long as that growth potential stays there, and you’re able to harvest the surplus and not diminish the base population to a level that triggers listing or delisting in the future, then it's not an unreasonable management objective," added Minard.
Only time will tell if delisting happens. The next 12 months are crucial to identify if the species can handle an introduced hunting season.
For now, folks like Ewelt view bears as a great symbol of the American West and one that continues to need to be protected as humans infringe on their ranges.
"As we continue to settle time and time again, taking their territory that’s already shrunk down and now they’ve got this small little segregated area where they can survive. And once again, we’re looking to threaten that. Is that right? No, I don’t think it is," Ewelt added.