BECKY BOHRER Associated Press Writer
BILLINGS State wildlife officials want to move grizzly bears to northwestern Montana, in a bid to help speed recovery of a small, struggling grizzly population there. The proposal to place bears in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem is part of the state’s long-term plan for managing federally protected grizzlies on suitable habitat across western Montana and beyond the borders of designated grizzly recovery zones. The transplanted bears would be from places with relatively high numbers of the animals. The plan envisions at least 500 bears in and around Glacier National Park. It also anticipates grizzlies moving into an area of extreme western Montana an area the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says has not had a verifiable grizzly sighting in more than 50 years and an increase in public tolerance of bears there. “The truth is, for us to be successful we have to have public support,” said Arnie Dood, endangered-species coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Public hearings on the plan are scheduled for September and the public has until Oct. 3 to comment. A final decision by Fish, Wildlife and Parks could come this year. For 31 years, grizzly bears in the contiguous states have been listed as a threatened species. Currently, the largest U.S. grizzly populations outside of Alaska are in and around Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Wildlife biologists estimate hundreds of bears roam each ecosystem. The Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed ending Yellowstone-area bears’ protection under the Endangered Species Act. Researchers are trying to get a better determination of the size and health of the Glacier area’s population. Populations in the other recovery areas in portions of Montana, Idaho and Washington are far smaller. The largest population is estimated to have perhaps several dozen bears. Fish, Wildlife and Parks cites a conservative estimate of 30 to 40 grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak, an ecosystem that includes part of northern Idaho, and says the population appears to be in decline.
The agency wants an eventual population of 90 to 125 grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak. In trying to reach that goal, officials would accelerate Montana’s current efforts to transfer bears of reproducing age from the Yellowstone or Glacier areas, or from Canada. The plan calls for transferring 10 to 15 bears over three to five years, then evaluating whether to continue. Wildlife managers find human-caused bear deaths a leading concern in the Cabinet-Yaak and say that if such deaths are not curbed, then the number of bears relocated must rise. Splintered habitat is another of the concerns about Cabinet-Yaak bear management. Education programs aimed at homeowners, outdoors enthusiasts and others are part of the plan, officials said. Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council believes the plan does not do enough to address human-caused bear deaths in the Cabinet-Yaak or the Glacier area. Nor does the plan do enough to make bear recovery “lasting and meaningful,” Willcox said. Staffing and law enforcement should increase, she said. Tom France, a regional director for the National Wildlife Federation, considers the plan an “excellent start” that paves the way for expansion of bears into habitat capable of supporting them.