This file photo shows a grizzly bear roaming near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen extended a temporary restraining order blocking the hunting of Yellowstone area grizzly bears in Wyoming and Idaho while he mulls restoring federal protections for the large carnivores.

State wildlife commissioners gave initial approval to draft hunting regulations for the Yellowstone grizzly bear and an agreement between the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming that would split up potential harvest should Endangered Species Act protections be removed from the bears.

Both are meant to augment the conservation strategy released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put out in March, when it unveiled the proposal to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bears. The bears were first listed as threatened under the law in 1975, when it was estimated there were 136 bears in the Yellowstone region. Now there are more than 700, and federal and state officials consider the bears recovered.

“This is one of the great success stories,” said commission chair Dan Vermillion of Livingston. “You have to accept the fact that there’s an exit ramp at some point.”

The commission’s vote Thursday opens the plan and the agreement for public comment until June 17. A final decision on both is expected in July.

Officials emphasized that approving the two measures doesn’t mean there will be grizzly bear hunting anytime soon. The bear has to be delisted first — officials expect a final proposal by the end of the year — and the commission would examine opening a season sometime after that.

The three-state agreement lines out how they would divide allowed discretionary mortality between the three states in a 19,279-square-mile area. Bear deaths there would be limited based on population levels and expected natural deaths, and the allowed discretionary killing would be split between the states.

State wildlife officials would meet each year to hammer that out, though the share each state would get is described in the agreement. Wyoming would get 58 percent, Idaho would get 8 percent, and Montana would get 34 percent.

John Vore, FWP’s game management bureau chief, said they expect Montana’s share of the discretionary killing to be very limited, fewer than 10 in most years.

“This number would likely be very low in most years, probably zero in some,” Vore said.

USFWS is requiring each of the three states to put forward draft hunting regulations, which Vore said was the reason FWP crafted the proposal presented Thursday.

The draft regulations recommended a spring and fall hunting season in seven grizzly bear management units near the border of Yellowstone National Park from Interstate 15 east to the western border of the Crow Indian Reservation. To protect female and young bears, it would prohibit killing of bears that are seen in groups. It also would prohibit killing bears in dens.

Licenses would be limited to the number of bears that hunters can kill, and those who draw a license wouldn’t be able to try again for seven years. A bear tag would cost a resident $150 plus a $50 trophy license if they are successful. Non-residents would pay $1,000.

Missoula commissioner Gary Wolfe pointed out discrepancies in the wording of the three-state agreement and the USFWS’ conservation strategy and delisting rule, saying those needed to be fixed before the agreement got final approval. He said discrepancies could leave a door open for environmental groups to sue and stop delisting, which they did in 2007 when the bears were last delisted.

“We should minimize the opportunity for people to throw darts at this,” Wolfe said.

Several public commenters at the meeting said it was too soon to start talking about hunting the bears, and that FWP and the commission needed to delay conversations on the topic.

Tom France, of the National Wildlife Federation, said the agency instead needed to look at grizzly bear management more holistically, rather than focusing on the hunting of bears in the Yellowstone region.

“We think the hunting regulations are premature,” France said.

Erin Edge, of Defenders of Wildlife, said that hunting shouldn’t be allowed near Yellowstone’s borders or in places where bears might have a chance at linking up with other grizzly populations, like the one in the Northern Continental Divide, which many argue is necessary for the long-term viability of grizzly bears.

“Our hope is that future generations will be witness to a larger and interconnected population,” Edge said.

Paul Rossingol, of Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, expressed support for the proposals, arguing that it was the right time to start thinking about grizzly hunting.

“There’s no reason being behind the eight-ball” when work can begin now, he said.

Mac Minard, the executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, also supported the proposals, saying that hunting could help bear management as a whole.

“The opportunity to provide some focused and conservative hunting opportunity can help us with human and bear interactions,” Minard said.

{span}The three-state agreement requires approval from each state. Wyoming’s Game and Fish commission approved the agreement this week, and Idaho’s commission is expected to follow suit. {/span}

Michael Wright can be reached at or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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