Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear

Montana is now the only state surrounding Yellowstone National Park without any proposal to hunt grizzly bears.

This past week, Idaho opened public comment on a proposal for a hunt of one male grizzly. Wyoming has released a proposal to sell 24 grizzly tags.

Montana decided against proposing a hunt in February. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks doesn’t have any regrets about not proposing a hunt, and top officials don’t care to weigh in on whether its neighbors are making the right choice.

“We made the decisions we feel are best for our state,” said Greg Lemon, an FWP spokesman. “Wyoming and Idaho and their departments have done the same.”

Yellowstone National Park spokeswoman Morgan Warthin said Friday that the park didn’t have any concerns. Frank van Manen, the leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, said kill limits enshrined in the management guidelines should ensure any impact to the population will likely be “pretty minor.”

But critics are worried that the proposed hunts threaten the newly delisted grizzly population. Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, worries Idaho’s hunters might accidentally kill a female, which she says could break an agreement between the states. David Mattson, a former government scientist turned grizzly bear advocate, wrote in a blog post earlier this month that Wyoming’s plans would likely “increase risks for a population that is already vulnerable.”

Wyoming’s proposal even has critics among those who supported delisting, like Dan Vermillion, the chairman of Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission.

“I worry that something like the Wyoming decision has probably given the people who want to stop the delisting ... the best argument they could have,” Vermillion said. “I think Wyoming’s proposal is going to be a challenge.”

Government scientists estimate that there are more than 700 grizzlies in the Yellowstone area. The federal government lifted Endangered Species Act protections from the bears in August 2017, ceding management responsibility to the three states and opening the door for the first grizzly hunts in decades.

Several environmental groups and Native Americans have sued in federal court to restore federal protections for the bears.

The three states have an agreement that lines out how many bears could be taken by hunters each year inside a roughly 20,000 square mile area called the “Demographic Monitoring Area.” The total for the area was 19 bears — 17 males and two females. Wyoming’s share inside that area was 10 males and the two females; Montana’s was six males; Idaho’s was one male.

Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release that the Idaho plan could lead to the killing of a female bear, which could break that agreement. It would also take the entire region to within one dead bear of surpassing the overall limit for females.

“It is extremely irresponsible to risk the killing of a female bear in Idaho through proposing an unnecessary hunt,” Santarsiere said. “Wyoming and Montana should be concerned that Idaho is not standing behind the promises it made to those states.”

Vermillion said the risk of killing a female bear was something Montana wrestled with when considering whether to propose a hunting season.

“It’s really hard to guarantee that somebody’s not going to shoot the wrong bear,” Vermillion said.

Kills aren’t limited outside of that area, which is how Wyoming is able to propose the hunting of 24 bears. Half the tags would be for inside the DMA and half would apply outside the DMA.

Bonnie Rice, of the Sierra Club, said in a statement this week that Wyoming’s proposal is “extreme and irresponsible” and that killing females could have an impact on reproductive rates.

Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, a delisting supporter, said Wyoming’s proposal is a bit much.

“I think it’s a very aggressive hunt for the first year,” Gevock said. “The species just came off the endangered species list.”

Brian Nesvik, chief game warden for Wyoming Game and Fish, said the proposal meets all the required thresholds and was created with public feedback, and that the state believes it’s biologically sound.

“I would disagree that this is overly aggressive,” Nesvik said. “When you consider the total number of bears in the ecosystem, this is a very low number.”

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com 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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