Federal wildlife officials have moved one step closer to surrendering the management of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystems to the three states that encompass them. Grizzly bear delisting could potentially open up hunting for the bears in parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho for the first time in more than 30 years.
The news came in response to petitions filed last year by all three states requesting the removal of federal protections for grizzlies under the Endangered Species Act. Approval of these petitions is the first step toward lifting these protections for grizzly populations living in the contiguous United States.
“While we understand that there are many steps between now and official delisting, grizzly bear recovery is a tremendous conservation success story — one that we are confident will continue into the future under state management authority,” Jeff Crane, president and CEO of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, told Free Range American.
On Feb. 3, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released three 90-day findings on the petitions. Based on the agency’s review, petitions filed by Montana and Wyoming presented “substantial scientific or commercial information,” indicating that delisting grizzly populations in regions bordering Glacier and Yellowstone national parks may be warranted.
Idaho’s petition to delist the grizzly bear in the entire Lower 48 was denied due to a lack of “substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned actions may be warranted.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will now conduct a “comprehensive status review” of grizzly populations in the two ecosystems to evaluate whether the populations have recovered enough for federal protections to be lifted. During the review period, the agency will also consider the “effects of any proposed delisting on the ongoing recovery of the larger listed entity of grizzly bears.”
The agency will then issue a status review with an analysis of available scientific and commercial information on grizzly biology, ecology, population trends, and threats to the species to evaluate its extinction risk. The status review could take as long as 12 months and must undergo independent peer review.
After the examination, if the agency finds grizzly delisting warranted, it will publish a 12-month finding and then take public comments on the proposal to delist the species.
“The CSF commends the USFWS for recognizing that the status of the grizzly bear has changed significantly since its initial listing and warrants further assessment,” Crane said.
“Not only have grizzly bears in both the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems far surpassed recovery goals,” he added, “but the states have also taken considerable steps at both the legislative and regulatory level to ensure that populations remain sustainable and healthy in perpetuity.”
States With a Plan
While some critics are skeptical that the individual states will be able to cooperate and manage their grizzly populations, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have already been responsible for most grizzly conservation efforts in the region.
“I believe that the states were doing much of the management work during the recovery period in the first place, so they already know what they are doing,” said Charles Whitwam, founder of Howl for Wildlife.
Howl for Wildlife is an advocacy platform formed in 2022 to help sportsmen fight anti-hunting legislation and boost pro-hunting legislation at both state and national levels.
Whitwam also acknowledged that grizzly hunting is only a small piece of the management puzzle.
“The current management plans are robust and responsible. And although many of the headlines are touting that the hunting of grizzly bear may return,” he said, “in reality, hunting represents a minute portion of the plan, so minute that it’ll probably only be to the tune of 20 hunting tags max.
“This is more about successful management plans and letting those who deal with grizzly bears on a day-to-day basis make decisions on what’s best for Montana and Wyoming.
“The next step is making our voices heard to FWS to actually get them delisted and celebrate the recovery.”
The three Northern Rocky Mountain states have also formed a pact detailing how they will address potential concerns for the greater grizzly population.
For example, to prevent isolated grizzlies from swimming in shallow gene pools, the states vowed to move at least two grizzlies from outside the area into the region to promote genetic diversity if natural migration does not occur.
In its petition, Wyoming also pledged to maintain a target population of at least 932 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, promising that hunting would halt if numbers fell below 831 bears.
Backstory: Grizzly Bear Delisting Ping-Pong
When Lewis and Clark explored the American West, more than 50,000 grizzlies roamed the contiguous U.S. However, the grizzly population plummeted between 1850 and 1970 as their habitat was destroyed by logging, mining, and land development.
In 1975, four distinct populations of Lower 48 grizzlies were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The species range had been reduced to approximately 2% of its original size, and the total population was estimated at less than 1,000 bears.
According to the National Park Service, “The goal of an Endangered Species Act listing is to recover a species to self-sustaining, viable populations that no longer need protection.”
Today, approximately 1,200 to 1,500 grizzlies roam the Lower 48, and another 31,000 can be found in Alaska. Wildlife officials estimate more than 1,000 of the massive bruins currently residing in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem alone, far exceeding the 500-bear recovery threshold federal officials set for the area in 2016.
In what has sometimes felt like a whiplash-inducing game of conservation ping-pong, Yellowstone area grizzlies have been delisted and relisted twice in the past 16 years.
In 2007, protections were lifted, and management strategies were implemented. However, several environmental groups filed lawsuits, including Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, Great Bear Foundation, and Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.
As a result of the lawsuits, a federal judge slapped Yellowstone grizzlies back on the list in 2008. In the 46-page decision, the judge cited a climate-change-driven decline of whitebark pine trees as a critical threat to the recovering population.
In 2017, the feds tried for delisting again. Yellowstone bears had more than doubled their range since the 1970s; the population had reached nearly 800, and the feds removed the “threatened” label.
The following year, hunting seasons with conservative quotas were scheduled in Idaho and Wyoming for fall 2018. Despite the seasons’ limited number of tags and tightly controlled structure, environmentalists stepped in again, with high-profile activists like Jane Goodall and Cynthia Moss entering the lottery for Montana’s 22 grizzly tags with plans to waste the tags if they were drawn. Neither successfully drew a tag.
Two days before the seasons were to begin in Montana and Idaho, a district judge issued a restraining order, halting them after a coalition of environmental groups and Native American tribes once again filed a lawsuit to reverse the delisting.
In his statement, U.S. District Court of Montana Judge Dana Christensen expressed concern over dividing the grizzly population into small, individual segments instead of considering the species as a whole. He returned Yellowstone area grizzlies to the endangered species list on Sept. 24, 2018.